With the release of the classic bible-story film “Noah” next week, Christians are gearing up to head to the theater. Between the close scrutiny the film has already received and the debates as to how much it aligns with the Bible, religious audiences are eager to weigh in on how much truth is here, and just how much accolade the epic merits.
Meanwhile, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is still lingering in theaters and “Nymphomaniac” has about four different release dates (between parts 1 and 2 and VOD) over the span of the coming month. And among other popular 2013 films, the R-rated case study of porn “Don Jon” just arrived to Netflix.
Most or all of the above seem offhand like they shouldn’t be part of the Christian critic’s cinema diet, and in sum, it’s mostly thanks to that R-rated material or associated thematic labels like “porn,” “sex,” and “drug content.” But if you look at little closer at these recent attractions, making a conscious effort to withhold judgment, the reward rises to the surface. In other words, don’t run the other way because of the R rating, but check them out for the invaluable thing that they do: these movies tell the truth.
To be sure, there is typically a lot of heavy “thematic” material in R-rated flicks in general (or maybe just violence and sex). It’s stuff that might offend, upset or disturb, but it’s also the “stuff” of cautionary tales, important true stories, and stories that pack a punch with a purpose. So I promise, I’m not saying that every R-rated movie out there should be checked out just to see if there’s any “truth” in it. But here’s the thing about a truthful movie: discussing it in its context can open up a world of ways to talk about truth in another context. Good film criticism bears in this in mind. A movie that is accurate to life and artful in that conveyance probably does not just entertain, but also might nudge the viewer to look inward and learn something about himself.
While that may appear a little obvious, it seems like a Christian critic might hit a wall when the R-rated stuff comes in. But consider for a moment why R-ratings exist. Films with this label don’t exactly trick you into thinking the movie you’re about to see is 100% innocuous. For instance, “The Passion of the Christ” didn’t cut corners on showing the darkness and morbidity of Christ’s death. That rating isn’t just so you know not to take a 13-year-old to this particular movie, but so that you can avoid films that include material that you yourself are sensitive to. There are countless people (religious and not) who can’t (and shouldn’t) handle a movie full of demonic possession or evil other-worldliness. For me, vivid depictions of physical abuse are hard to watch. While that should wall off some films on a person-by-person basis, it’s too big a blanket statement to say all films in the controversial category should be avoided. The films that seek to carve out a point are possibly even more likely to use tools that fall into that R-rated category — even so, isn’t a strongly conveyed truth something that we should at least be aware of? Can’t it be held up as common ground and a culture-making conversation topic?
These movies are tools for Christians to talk, in the context of one truthful depiction of reality, about the truth we want to share. And as these particular films and shows all have a sort of notoriety, we’re engaging right at the nexus of the of the cultural conversation by bringing them up. All you need is Google to know that there’s porn, there’s sex, and there’s drugs in “Wolf,” “Nympho” and “Don Jon.” But what else? All these films have scored highly on Rotten Tomatoes (with over 75% aggregate “approval rating”), which is impossible without a richly layered message. What else are these films saying?
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is notoriously intense and then some. Critical audiences zeroed in quickly on the copious nude bodies and the crack businessmen snorted off of a number of creatively controversial surfaces. But to taboo the movie for the method it used to tell this particular story is to miss the point. Leonardo DiCaprio has more than once deliberately slowed down and made eye contact during interviews to say this:, the movie is not an ode to the lifestyle of Jordan Belfort and the Wall Street culture therein, but was meant instead to provoke a strong reaction to the prevailing chaos and corruption. And that’s what it does — the building conclusion hits you with a brutal depiction of failure, wrongness and a fall after taking you through the joyride of a twisted American dream. Lots of movies can regurgitate the “crime doesn’t pay” message, but “Wolf” takes both revel-some debauching and sobering misery and creates an experience raunchy and wrenching. Its conclusion is not vague and it leaves nothing “up to you to decide” — it hits hard.
While “Wolf” goes there, “Don Jon” goes further. It’s rare that a film’s truth packs a punch AND the redeems its central character, and while that redemption doesn’t stem from interactions at Jon’s church, it’s a powerful and even spiritual process all the same. From the trailer, this film looks like anything from a dude-comedy to a romance to a porn-centric macho fest — it really isn’t anything of these things. Joseph Gordon-Levitts’ candid drama exposes the repercussions of porn and what sex means/is/does, while tackling the way women fantasize relationships on the side. What really stands out is the “porn” versus the “sex” in the film — that’s actually what the film is about, and you can tell, too. From a distance, it seems unsettling. But you can’t engage or even remotely understand this film from a distance. It manages to draw a certain kind of audience (by the trailers and style of film it appears to be) and goes about what can only be described as convicting that audience. It couldn’t have been so potent without being just as raw.
“Nymphomaniac” (Volume 1) did a similar sort of thing as “Wolf,” in that it told truth in a story of diving hard fast and deep into human desires. But here I need expound on the “sensitivity rule.” While my sensitivity to abuse and grief should not make me shy away from” The Kite Runner” as a film critic, there are sensitivities that I’d go so far as to say every Christian should feel. Not turn offs, repulsions, or triggers leading to explosive angry reactions, but sensitivities and strong convictions. When a story reaches into a very dark or very serious place, only to praise its misery or laud what would in reality be scarring or begging for healing, that’s when they should kick in.
There’s some bits of “Nympho” that struck those kind of chords. Much like early moments in “Wolf,” some scenes full of a gleeful sort of revelry centered on a 15-year-old girl’s dire hunger for sex are shown graphically and humorously. The graphic isn’t really what’s upsetting — if you sign up for a showing of a film titled with a synonym for “Sex Addict” you should have an inkling of what you’re in for and be prepared to look beyond it. But there’s a handful of parts that are sad, base, problematic, and definitely promises repercussions all upsetting — and these moments are filmed so funnily that the room was full of stifled laughs, some of them coming from me until I took a minute to think about what really just happened.
But while a few moments glossed over the idea of real consequence, the masterfully crafted film did not maintain one tone throughout. Lars von Trier definitely has a thing for reaching into dark places, but “Nymphomaniac” was less about showing lots of sex and more about the idea of nature and pain. The sex was predominantly not sexy; it was used to tell the story of a woman who was more than an addict, in an unprecedented way. A specific and insightful purpose was present, unlike Von Trier’s “Antichrist,” which was painful and gut wrenching for the sake of being so.
The truth in this film is not limited to the lack of glamor in the life of a woman who enacts ruins through her addiction. An early idea that love is just “lust mixed with jealousy” gets redefined, physically, visually, and almost wordlessly, a feat only this film could do. Addiction and nature are inexplicit but ever present forces and ideas. There’s Bach, Poe, and fly fishing, and there’s humor that works in the right places. There’s a profound feeling of emptiness in the unfolding of her story, and a painful absence of friendship. And at the beginning of her story, Joe mentions sin, to which her listener responds with an excellent question: Of all the things to take from religion, why pick just sin?
It’s a great question. Sin isn’t the half of the composition of my faith, and I could talk about truth and love and the relationship they have to each other. But in a culture where religion is sometimes unfortunately reduced to an image of legalism and forbidden fruit, it seems that the idea of sin is the only thing left standing to represent what’s really a lot more than that. To look at religion and grasp only sin is tragedy – why do that?
“Nymphomaniac” posed this question. Not a bad place to start.
Taylor Lindsay is a film critic for Christianity Today Movies, and contributes regularly to Indiewire.