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.