Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Top Ten Preacher Anti Heroes

Faith is a subject best left to the individual. While I don't have any religious inclination, I don't have any desire to interfere with anyone else's views. Kurt Vonnegut speaking of a friend who lost his faith, said, 
"I thought that was too much to lose. I had never had faith like that, because I had been raised by interesting and moral people who, like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were nonetheless skeptics about what preachers said was going on. But I knew Bernie had lost something important and honorable. Again, I did not like that, did not like it because I liked him so much." Personally, I  love that statement, because it illustrates the individual nature of things. "Faith" can be a good thing to a good man, and it goes the other way too. I don't need to have it to respect it in someone else, but by the same token, I reserve my own right to decide what I believe or not.

There's no doubt that many find faith useful, and it certainly does more to help people in need than any private industry I can think of. Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization few would malign, uses faith as a key component. There's also no doubt that many have used faith for less than noble ends. Belief can give a manipulator an obscene amount of power over followers. There have been many of scandals involving famous evangelists over the years, as if to remind us that power corrupts. And on the other side, it would seem that the more holy you proclaim yourself, the more people will look to prove you wrong. I don't doubt that there many sincere preachers trying to do something good. They don't make the news as often as it's not as popular a story. Every one of them is as human as I am and prone to character flaws. I don't see it as about the faith, as much as it is about the person. People aren't good or bad typically, but contain the potential for both and everything in between. When this is demonstrated in an influential preacher though, a lot of people can suffer.

The story of a bad preacher, is almost always about abuse of power. Abuse of power is always terrifying, whether from cops, politicians, doctors, or preachers. I wonder about anyone who would ask me to shut off my critical thinking so they can take over. These stories are relevant to any time period. Many debates of our time are still religious in nature. Just look at the news, you won't have to look for too long, whether it's abortion, stem cell research, or school curriculum. In film though, there is typically a tighter focus on what makes the most interesting story.

Sometimes in these films, faith is "the act." (Elmer Gantry, Leap of Faith) It's more frightening however, when it's not an act but a delusional sense of entitlement that allows them to harm others. (Red State, Night of the Hunter) Sometimes it's just someone trying to be better or understand the world in their chosen way, (The Apostle, Wise Blood) or dealing with the loss of Faith (From Dusk Till Dawn, Night of the Iguana) and sometimes it's someone's chosen way to help (Sleepers, Pale Rider) It always comes down to the individual and it usually results in an interesting struggle.

10. Father Bobby, (Robert DeNiro) Sleepers

A group of four boys grow up in Hell's Kitchen, NY; Lorenzo (Jason Patric,) Michael (Brad Pitt,) Tommy (Billy Cruddup,) and John (Ron Eldard.) They have difficult backgrounds and a habit of getting into trouble, although they're given some stability by their status as altar boys, supervised by Father Bobby (Robert DeNiro) an ex con turned priest, who tries to look out for them. They're fond of pranks, and one particular prank goes horribly wrong, killing a man. They're sent to The Wilkinson Home for Boys, where they are abused by the guards, most notably Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon) who rapes and beats them on a regular basis. Tears later, Tommy and John shoot Nokes dead in a bar. Lorenzo is now a newspaper columnist. Michael is an Assistant District Attorney who takes the Nokes case, planning to lose it. He also gives Lorenzo years of research on all the corrupt guards at the Boy's Home hoping to make everything that happened public. In order to successfully throw the case, however they need Father Bobby to testify giving Tommy and John an alibi. Although he is against "swearing to God" and then lying on the stand, he agrees, once he finds out what Nokes did.
"And you won't need a doctor when I'm done, you'll need a priest - to pray over your body."

9.  Abin Cooper, (Michael Parks) Red State

Abin Cooper leads a fanatical church with a vendetta against homosexuals. Their definition is a broad one which they're willing to stretch if it means they can find new victims. Not happy with waiting to randomly run into gay people, Cooper's church posts a classified ad posing as a woman looking for group sex. Before anything sexual occurs, three high school boys who responded to the ad wake up in captivity and must watch as another captive is executed in full approving view of the church. The boys try to escape, while ATF agent Keenan (John Goodman) is planning a raid on the church compound. After the stand off results in some casualties, the ATF proves to be as merciless as the church when they're given the order to leave no witnesses. Cooper is a detestable and frightening character, but the performance is top notch.
"I hate the wickedness in America. Rampant fornication, adultery, abortion, flagrant sexuality everywhere, and it's up to the righteous to to curb the spread of this disease."

8. Hazel Motes, (Brad Dourif) Wise Blood

Hazel Motes leaves the Army and returns to his old home angry. His family is gone and he has a chip on his shoulder about his religious upbringing. He rejects the idea of Christ, although everyone he encounters asks him if he's a preacher. Moving into the city, Hazel tries to make a statement, quickly hiring a prostitute and telling anyone who will listen that they don't need "Christ crucified." He runs into a con artist preacher, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) who pretends he's blind, and his daughter, Sabbath Lilly (Amy Wright) who's determined to sleep with Hazel and become part of his "act." Soon Hazel gets the idea to start the "Church of Christ without Christ" and his preaching is noticed Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) who sees Hazel as a good vehicle to make a buck. Hazel rejects Shoates, who undeterred, creates himself an imitation of Hazel, paying another man to act the part. All of the fraudulent influences get to Hazel and he is less and less able to deal with them, finally making a drastic gesture with big consequences, perhaps doom or redemption.
"...the Church of Christ Without Christ. Where the blind can't see, the lame don't walk, and the dead stay that way."

7. Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, (Richard Burton) The Night of the Iguana
(full review)
Rev. Shannon, after a sex scandal in his former congregation, is defrocked and takes a job as a tour guide in Mexico, showing groups sites of religious significance. However, another scandal seems imminent when a young girl in the tour group, Charlotte, (Sue Lyon) attempts to seduce him. Charlotte's guardian, Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall)  is eager to see Shannon punished at the very suspicion of such behavior. Attempting to keep Judith from calling his superiors, Shannon disables the bus, forcing them to stay at an old friends bed and breakfast. His friend has passed on and it's now run by his widow, Maxine Faulk, (Ava Gardner) an outspoken, sexually uninhibited woman, who Shannon sees as an ally against Judith. They're soon joined by an elderly poet and his niece, Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who add to the already tense situation. Shannon seeks to find relief in alcohol, but the situation gets far out of hand although unexpected turns lead all the major players to some sort of resolution.
Nothing could be worse for a girl in your unstable condition, to be mixed up with a man in, in my unstable condition because two people in unstable conditons are like two countries facing each other in unstable conditons. The, eh, destructive potential, eh, could blow the whole world to bits!

6. Jacob Fuller, (Harvey Keitel) From Dusk Till Dawn

Pastor Jacob Fuller is driving his two kids, Kate (Juliette Lewis,) and Scott (Ernest Liu) in an R.V. They're soon hijacked by the Gecko brothers, Seth (George Clooney,) and Richie (Quentin Tarantino) armed criminals on the way to Mexico. Forced to accompany the Gecko's to their destination "The Titty Twister" The bar turns out to be a haven for vampires and the Geckos and Fullers are badly outmatched. Seth realizes that Jacob being a Pastor can be useful, but Jacob has lost his faith angry at his wife's death and the suffering she endured being trapped in a wreck for hours waiting to die. At Seth's urging and for the sake of his family,  Jacob has to find his faith again, if they ever hope to leave the bar alive.
"Yes I do believe in Jesus. Yes I do believe in God. But, do I love them? No."

5. Preacher, (Clint Eastwood) Pale Rider

A small village in the west is formed by people prospecting for gold. Although they have staked their claim, a ruthless mining company owned by Cory LaHood, is determined to run them off and take the land for themselves. After LaHood's men attack their camp, a girl, Megan, whose dog was killed, says a prayer for "one more miracle." as the camp is hopelessly outmatched. Soon a stranger rides into town and ends up helping one of the prospectors, Hull (Michael Moriarty) as LaHood's men attack him. The Stranger fends them off easily, leading Hull to offer him a place to stay. The stranger introduces himself as "Preacher" and helps the prospectors hold off the mining company. It becomes clear that he's more than a match for LaHood and his crew, and is something more than human.
"Well, there's a lotta sinners hereabouts. You wouldn't want me to leave before finishin' my work, would ya?"

4. Jonas Nightingale, (Steve Martin) Leap of Faith
(full review)
Jonas Nightingale is an entertainer with a travelling revival show. He's well organized and popular, with a show that astounds most who see it. This is accomplished through con games using the latest technology and assisted by his crew. Nightingale has no religious belief at all, but doesn't admit that he's a con man. He asserts that his show makes people feel better about themselves and is worth whatever the audience pays for it. After his bus has mechanical problems, he and his crew make an unplanned stop in a town with a skeptical Sheriff Will Braverman (Liam Neeson) and a waitress, Marva (Lolita Davidovich) that catches Nightingale's attention. Marva doesn't like travelling preachers either, as others have disappointed her younger brother who can't walk. Braverman attempts to run Nightingale out of town, but he's too clever. The only thing Nightingale fears is "the genuine article"
"Look, I run a show here. It's a lot of smoke and noise and it's strictly for the suckers. I've been pulling one kind of scam or another since I was your age, and if there's one thing I know it's how to spot the genuine article because that's what you've got to watch out for. Not the cops, you can always get around the cops. But the one thing you can never, ever get around is the genuine article, and you, kid, are the genuine article." 

3. Elmer Gantry, (Burt Lancaster) Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry is a slick salesman, who happens upon Sister Sharon Falconer, a preacher with a successful
road show. Having some knowledge of the Bible along with his charismatic delivery, he inserts himself into her show with his popularity, their following grows. Gantry cares little about the religious aspects of his performance, only seeing another product which is a great money maker. Sharon believes in what she preaches, but taken by Gantry, she becomes his lover. Before long, Gantry's bitter ex lover, Lulu, crosses paths with the show, and frames Gantry for a crime and blackmails him. Sharon stands by him as he tries to escape the plot, but there are consequences for all involved.
"When I was a child, I spake as a child. I understood as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things." 

2. Sonny, (Robert Duvall) The Apostle
(full review)
Sonny is not an outright con man, but he is a guy with some serious issues and a temper. Enraged, he kills the man sleeping with his wife and goes on the run with a new identity to start over again. He isn't out to steal people's money, but genuinely enjoys helping them. In his new community he starts a new church and gains their respect and welcome. That doesn't keep him from his own character flaws however, and inevitably his alias is called into question. However sincere he may be, Sony has to discover that he can't escape paying for his actions.
I don't know who's been fooling with me, you or the Devil.I don't know! I won't even bring the human into this. He's just a mutt, so I won't bring him into this, but I'm confused, I'm mad. I love you Lord, but I am mad at you! I AM MAD AT YOU!" 

1. Harry Powell, (Robert Mitchum) Night of the Hunter
(full review)
The most terrifying preacher ever put on screen and certainly a unique film. Mitchum's performance is the centerpiece that this surreal nightmare hinges on. Powell poses as a man of the cloth to conceal his murderous habits. Determined to get his hands on a large sum of money that his former cellmate stole and hid, he cons the man's widow into marriage. She knows nothing about the money, but her young kids, John and Pearl do. After Harry kills their mother, they're on their own escaping him as the whole town accepts Harry as a man of the cloth. Harry is cruel, relentless and almost supernaturally efficient, making this a terrifying and cat and mouse game.
Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E! It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E! You see these fingers, dear hearts? These fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man. The right hand, friends, the hand of love. Now watch, and I'll show you the story of life. Those fingers, dear hearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t'other. Now watch 'em! Old brother left hand, left hand he's a fighting, and it looks like love's a goner. But wait a minute! Hot dog, love's a winning! Yessirree! It's love that's won, and old left hand hate is down for the count!


Cary Watson said...

Clint Eastwood is a preacher (briefly) at the beginning of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. It's an odd but entertaining film. I did a piece on it at my blog.

INDBrent said...

Cool! I will check that out. Haven't thought of that film in some time. Good chance to revisit it!

Andrew Nette said...

Nice post, Brent. You have reminded me that I've been meaning to see Elma Gantry. I've never heard of Wise Blood but like Huston's movies. Will have to get a copy of both of these.

INDBrent said...

Thanks for stopping by Andrew! I'd recommend Elmer Gantry to anyone. It's one of Lancaster's best roles and based on a Sinclair Lewis story. Wise Blood is a film of its own kind. Hope you enjoy them!

Unknown said...

Very late to this party, but what a topic and selection of films. I love how you quote Vonnegut here. I grew up Catholic and am still recovering. :)

Night of the Hunter is one of my favorite Robert Mitchum films. He was one of the best when it came to portraying evil. Cape Fear is another awesome flick.

I have not seen Wise Blood nor Elmer Gantry so I will be checking them out.