I’ve noticed in the last week that there was a trend in the entertainment I saw—an examination of faith in its different forms. Last night’s Glee questioned God’s existence, a discussion brought on by Kurt’s dad lying in a coma after suffering a heart attack. There was the funny approach—Finn believing in grilled cheesus, a Jesus-like image burnt into his grilled cheese sandwich—and the overwrought one—Rachel and her Yentl impersonation. The most affecting scenes turned out to be Sue’s revelation that she started doubting God as a kid because He didn’t cure her sister’s Down Syndrome, and Kurt’s singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for his dad because that’s something real he can believe in.
I also attended screenings of two movies—Stone (out October 8th) and Conviction (October 15th)—that also deal with faith, though the movies’ styles and what the lead characters believe in differ dramatically. Stone stars Edward Norton as the titular character, a convict trying to manipulate his parole officer, Jack (Robert De Niro), into giving him an early release by getting his beautiful wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), to seduce Jack. Conviction is the true story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a high school dropout who goes back to school to obtain a law degree so she can get her wrongly convicted brother out of a life sentence for murder.
My contributing writer, Eric Edwards, and I had widely varying viewpoints on these movies so I’m posting the following discussion instead of traditional reviews.
Pop Culture Nerd: I had no idea Stone was about spirituality. I thought it was a crime thriller. Did you know?
Eric Edwards: No, I was expecting a violent prison movie. I didn’t see the trailer but didn’t think I needed to. They had me with Norton and De Niro. I had no clue it was about a journey of faith and redemption.
PCN: Which I don’t have a problem with, but I don’t like being misled. Nowhere in the ad campaigns did I see an indication of the subject matter. I went in expecting a gritty thriller and got a talky examination of faith done in a heavy-handed way.
EE: It was a bit heavy-handed…
PCN: Characters were reading and quoting excerpts from the Bible! Stone’s wife’s name is Lucetta but Jack would call her Lucy, which could also be short for Lucifer. C’mon!
EE: But it’s a topic that’s timely. These days, we need our faith, we need something to hang on to. And for the record, I’m not a Bible thumper. If you notice, the characters doing the heaviest thumping in the movie are the most lost.
PCN: Here’s the thing: my faith is strong but I don’t go around trying to hit people over the head with it. It’s a personal thing for everyone. I thought Stone was preaching too hard. That incessant chatter from the Christian talk radio station Jack listens to was driving me batty. While the radio host was hammering and hammering his points home, I just wanted to reach through the screen and turn off the radio.
EE: We’re not subjected to that chatter while we’re in Stone’s world. I think the movie is about extremists and asks us where our positions are on the belief scale. Anything that makes us think like that is worth the price of admission.
PCN: I’m all for movies that promote intelligent thought but I don’t like being suckered. The official synopsis for the film says it’s “a tale of passion, betrayal and corruption” but it’s really a long lecture on spirituality. If they want to do that, say it up front. And show, not tell.
Like Conviction. That movie showed me what absolute faith looks like. Betty Anne believed in her brother’s innocence and set out to prove it. She was tested over and over, in ways that would’ve crushed most people’s spirit, but she never wavered. Actions speak louder than words, right? Betty Anne acted on her faith while Stone and Jack just sit around talking about it. And Betty Anne’s real.
EE: Are you sure you didn’t just like Conviction more because you didn’t have to watch people going to church and reading from the Bible like in Stone?
PCN: What?? I go to church.
EE: OK, I’m not calling you an atheist. I guess my problem with Conviction is that I felt the brother (Sam Rockwell) wasn’t worth saving. He was kind of a jerk. Betty had such a tunnel-vision approach to getting him out of prison that she may have done more damage to her husband and kids while she was at it.
PCN: Betty Anne sacrificed a lot in her crusade but that’s how her faith guided her.
EE: To the detriment of everyone around her.
PCN: Not her brother.
EE: He was in prison.
PCN: So he didn’t need her?
EE: She could’ve balanced her focus more.
PCN: She felt her life purpose was to get her brother exonerated. I’m still trying to figure out my life purpose so I’m not going to judge how she goes about accomplishing hers. I thought what she did was pretty inspiring.
EE: Let’s agree to disagree on this point and move on. What did you think of the performances?
PCN: I liked Ed Norton a lot once I got past the cornrows and character voice, which made me chuckle at first. My favorite line of his: “I don’t want no beef with you; I just want to be vegetarian.” De Niro was De Niro, Jovovich was interesting in that she kept me guessing about her true motivations.
In Conviction, I really liked Minnie Driver’s and Swank’s performances. Driver brings so much levity and energy to the movie; her Boston accent is spot-on. Swank excels at playing the scrappy underdog who takes on impossible challenges.
EE: I enjoyed Norton’s work—I believed the transitions in his performance the most. I don’t like seeing De Niro weak. I don’t mind him vulnerable, but not weak. He’s De Niro! As far as Swank is concerned, hasn’t she played the same character about 15 times? I think her performances are repetitive.
PCN: You wanna talk about repetitive? When was the last time De Niro did something truly fresh in the last two decades?
EE: OK, but if you consider his entire career, it’s more varied than Swank’s so far.
PCN: True, but she’s got time. We’ll see.
Eric Edwards—A solid Stone, Misguided Conviction
PCN—A dull Stone, Moving Conviction
Photos by Ron Batzdorf