Monday, February 28, 2011

The Grace Card (2011)

Starring Michael Joiner, Michael Higgenbottom and Louis Gossett Jr.
Directed by David Evans
Rated PG-13: Violence, Some Thematic Elements

The film opens on a flashback to our protagonist, Bill “Mac” McDonald’s past, were we learn that a speeding car killed his son Tyler. We know his son’s name because he screams “Tyler!” after he bolts awake. Dreams are quite dangerous in the movies, aside of the risk of running into Freddy Kruger or Leonard DiCaprio in your subconscious, apparently having a nightmare generates enough adrenaline in your body to propel your torso at near lethal velocity the second you regain consciousness.

Well fifteen years later Mac is complete jerk, his morning conversation consisting of complaining how ethnics have moved into their neighborhood and yells at his living son Blake for being such a screw up and that Tyler never would have turned out like this. In fiction when your character is a jerk, it’s best to give them at least one redeeming trait so that we don’t completely detach from them. Mac is saddled with Dead Offspring Syndrome, so he gets a sympathy pass by association rather than by anything he does himself, as we see he’s a lousy husband and father, an outright racist, a bit of a sexist and a terrible police officer to boot.

We are then introduced to his new partner Sam Wright, whom the other police officers snidely call “Preacher”, due to his second job as a minister. Mac and Sam don’t get along, Sam getting the promotion to Sergeant over Mac, the latter convinced that the choice in candidates was due to race. Sam doesn’t really help matters by irritating his partner by signing verses from hymns during patrol. “A-MA-ZING G-RACE! Public domain we don’t have pay anyone! Hahaha.” We’ve already established that he’s the religious one of the duo so this is really just overkill.

The film also contains Louis Gossett Jr. as “Grandpa George”. Gossett is best known for his award winning roles such as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in “An Officer and A Gentleman”, Fiddler in “Roots”, and as Calvin Bouchard in “Jaws 3-D” (the latter of which had him nominated for the Golden Raspberry, which is an award of sorts). Despite his name on the poster with our two leads, he doesn’t really “star” in the movie since he only shows up in three short scenes, only two of them with dialogue and are just used to advance the spiritual side of the movie and serve as wised old mentor for Sam. By the end he hardly seems worth the mention.

Home life for Sam and Mac is lacking in subtlety. The Wrights live in a warmly lit earth toned house with a family dinner, light hearted banter and conflicts that are quickly and easily resolved. Contrast with the McDonald’s, who sit their cramped claustrophobic dining space that’s parked right up against a wall, and is lit by only one small overhead light. Apparently they’re broken in spirit as well as shins, stumbling around, banging into furniture in the dark.

Things pick up later, while on patrol Mac shoots a burglar fleeing a scene, only to discover that the thief his just shot was his own son! DUN-DUN-DUN! Mac’s reaction is so over the top that I nearly ruptured a lung laughing so hard. It turns out I’m not the only one to have grievous harm done, as Blake has been shot in the kidney and needs an urgent replacement.

Mac’s character arc comes to a head as we reach his big conversion scene, were, with Sam’s help he gives his life over to God. Not much to say here, its par for the course as far as Christian films are concerned and I’d best leave it at that.

Hope arrives just in the nick of time as it is revealed that Sam is an eligible donor for Blake’s needs and volunteers immediately, though he does take the time to have a flashback to all the moments he’s shared with Mac, that we’ve already seen in some poor attempt at pathos.

During the operation, Sam’s daughter asks her mother how they know a kidney from a black man will work in a white boy. Mom replies that while we’re different on the outside, but on the inside we’re all the same. It’s true all right; permit me to demonstrate by vomiting up rainbows. As far as a film about race relations goes, this isn’t exactly “In the Heat of the Night”, heck, this movie doesn’t even begin to break a sweat.

We cut ahead six months later so that we don’t have to see any of the gradual change to the characters after such a shocking ordeal, though this may have been done intentional, so that none of the actors have to actually “act”. The conclusion is at Sam’s church, which is now packed to the brim with new members including the McDonald family who are all happy and smiling and everything seems A-Okay. Then things suddenly become tense when the man who killed Tyler walks into the church, and in front of the whole congregation asks Mac for forgiveness. Wow. No pressure. It’s the kind of ending that would seem ridiculous even if it were on a daytime soap opera. Well as you expect, Mac extends his “Grace Card” to the man, as well as a hand to shake before we cut to the credits.


I know I’ll probably receive flack for coming down hard on a Christian film and for measuring by the same standards I would use for any mainsteam Hollywood film, especially given the theme of grace in this particular movie, but I can’t think of any reason why I should do otherwise. The problems I have with this film have nothing to do with its Christian message of forgiveness and mercy, both values that I can firmly attest to, but rather how the story is portrayed. When it all comes down this movie is intended to coddle viewers rather than convict them. The drama simplified for the sake of it evangelical sub culture target audience. The race relation element of the film in particular fails to deliver because it is incapable of branching beyond its simple depiction of racism, so that the finale can easily resolve all the bad blood. 

The direction relies heavily on communication through telling rather than showing in the actor’s performances because the characters really don’t have personalities. Instead the characters are used as blank slates to have problems projected onto them with no way of dealing with their situations on their own. They are written to have all their issues solved by giving themselves over to God, and presto change-o they are now completely different as a result! The filmmakers say “Take our word for it, and if you don’t believe, just look at the ending were Mac is backed into a situation were he can make no other choice except the one presented here.” There is no tension for them because they don’t feel like real people, especially when we don’t see them changed but are only told they have changed. The quality production values are really the movie’s only redeeming feature.

Final Score:
1 out of 5. Dull and Toothless.

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