As the only non-religious member of my otherwise Christian (and, in my dad’s case, Jewish) family, reviewing—or even watching—faith-based movies has proven to be a bit of a challenge. I’ve never shied away from expressing my honest opinions about pieces of media I see, but, in the case of films like these, this has occasionally proven to upset others around me. So me agreeing to watch and review War Room (which my mom had been wanting me to see for a while) is a bit of a gamble, but as a form of personal catharsis, it’s well worth it. Also, it’s easily one of the worst faith-based movies I’ve ever seen, so that makes venting my frustrations with Christian cinema a lot easier.
I want to stay as positive as I can here, so let’s get to the good stuff first. The acting, while not great for the most part, is occasionally semi-decent: when characters cry, at least there are actual tears coming out of their eyes (unlike some other faith films I know of—skip to 4:03 to see exactly what I mean by that). The cinematography, while nothing special by any means, is professionally done, and could certainly look a lot worse (though it’s undermined by some really terrible editing choices). And that’s literally it. [HEAVY SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, AS THOUGH YOU SHOULD EVEN CARE]
There isn’t a single theme, message, or allegory in this movie that the Kendricks don’t make sure to hammer down viewers’ throats as hard as they possibly can, and it’s honestly pretty hilarious. The opening scene literally pairs old war footage with absurdly overwrought narration explaining the movie’s entire meaning, particularly how soldiers use war rooms to—and I quote—“look at what the enemy was doing, then begin putting together the resources and a plan to fight against them”, and how “very few of us know how to fight the right way” (cue the sappy, overbearing music swells). All of which is supposed to relate to the “power of prayer” and whatnot. You do the math.
Even if you go into War Room completely blind, you’ll still pretty much know everything that’s going to happen in it within the first 10 minutes. Tony Jordan is a successful pharmaceutical salesman who’s verbally abusive to his realtor wife, Elizabeth, seriously negligent of his daughter Danielle, and even on the verge of having an affair. (The film’s trailer opens with him complementing Danielle’s skill at jumping rope, but that doesn’t even happen until its final stretch, way after he’s flipped from “bad Tony” to “good Tony”.)
While trying to sell the house of Miss Clara (the narrator from before), an old African-American church lady who embraces “old African-American church lady” tropes in the most ridiculously over-the-top way possible, she soon winds up spilling all her relationship issues to this random client. Rather than redirecting her to some sort of professional marriage counseling, Clara insists that she go into her house’s closet —the “war room” of the title—and pray/yell Satan out of her family’s life, which will somehow bring Tony right back into her arms. Because Satan is clearly the only reason for any of this, and it’s her fault that she didn’t try fighting him earlier.
Call me a heathen all you like, but this message—especially since it’s centered on a topic as serious as domestic abuse— is seriously shallow at best, and dangerously misguided at worst. At no point are the characters’ prayers not immediately answered by an (unseen) higher power, and at no point is there any doubt that believing in Jesus will automatically make everything perfectly hunky-dory. In one particularly troubling moment, a knife-wielding mugger demands Elizabeth and Clara hand all their money to him, only to instantly shrink back in fear once the latter person shouts “In the name of Jesus!”
Multiple scenes show tears flowing from both mother and daughter, and you’re clearly supposed to think “Aww, I hope this rocky marriage somehow turns out OK.” Since we’re never given a single reason to care about said marriage, and since Tony repeatedly proves himself to be the worst husband alive (even implying that he wouldn’t give his wife CPR if she needed it), all I could think was “Aww, I hope Elizabeth gets separated from him real soon.”
Of course, since that’s apparently worse than getting emotionally abused by her own husband, divorce is never even hinted at, prayer is painted as the literal solution to everything, and all women dealing with angry husbands should, in one minor character’s exact words, “Learn to duck so God can hit [them]”. When Tony finally decides to stop being the skeevy dirtbag he is, it’s only because Elizabeth tearfully prays hard enough that he suddenly gets food poisoning or something, which is apparently enough to prevent him from hooking up with a female employee he’s traveling with.
This entire arc is so rushed and superficial that by the time we get to this scene, there’s still a full hour left in the movie—as opposed to, you know, 15 minutes or so. As such, we get an entire subplot about Tony owning up to stealing and dealing drugs from the company he was just fired from… right in front of his former boss, Coleman Young. An employee in their midst understandably wants to call the cops, but as Coleman is played by director Alex Kendrick (savvy casting!), he’s so moved by Tony’s willingness to admit this that he decides not to press any charges. Because that’s exactly how somebody in his position would react to that in real life.
But wait! There’s still gotta be more padding to fill up this 120-minute long movie, and it comes in the form of Danielle and her father competing in a boring, stakes-free double-dutch jump-rope competition at their town’s local community center. Yes, you read that right: this is actually how the Kendricks decided to end a movie about domestic abuse, drug-dealing, attempted mugging, and near-adultery (all of which is sanitized enough to keep the film’s PG rating). Guess the amount of tone-deafness here comes at no surprise, given that the extent of the film’s “humor” revolves around Elizabeth’s halitosis and odorous feet.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that there’s no way War Room’s ending could be anything but woefully anti-climactic. And you’re not wrong: the film’s final scene is literally a montage of random people all over America praying, complete with more overwrought narration from Clara. When I first saw this, I thought it had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and that it was just there so the Kendricks could further proselytize about their religious beliefs. Then I thought about it a little more, and realized that it’s probably supposed to represent Clara’s efforts at spreading her faith advancing throughout her entire community and country. Which is still far too grandiose to fit into the rest of the movie on any level, but whatever.
Now for the record, I don’t think all faith-based movies are inherently bad. From what I can remember (and I saw both of these more than a year ago, so forgive me if my memory’s a little shaky), I Can Only Imagine and Breakthrough were at least fairly solid, and despite my (many) issues with it, The Passion of the Christ is something I can at least respect for the intent of its creator*. However, until movies like War Room learn to properly treat such hot-button issues, to give its stories and characters far more depth, and to more naturally feature Christian elements instead of forcing them into nearly every scene, they’re not going to catch on with anybody outside the hardcore religious crowd. They’re just not.
My advice? If you’re in search of a good family drama, seek out Little Miss Sunshine instead. It may be more raunchy and profane than anything in the faith-based arena, but it’s also honest enough to confront its darker themes head-on, and portray them in a far more sensitive and nuanced light. Many films of this sort could really learn a few things from it.
*By that, I mean Mel Gibson’s willingness to make the story of Jesus’s last hours as realistically gruesome as the Bible apparently portrays it (at least, for the most part), not his controversial inclusion of Jewish caricatures.