God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness and all the images you see in this review are owned by Pure Flix Entertainment
Directed by Michael Mason
Is there any single entity that manages to put out worse garbage to the cinemas than Pure Flix? Yes, Eli Roth. Other than HIM though, Pure Flix is easily the biggest blight on my existence as a film critic and I dread their releases more than anything else; God’s Not Dead 2 in particular being one of the lowest points I’ve ever had sitting in a theater. Now watching them in a Post-SCROTUS America? Good LORD, I can’t imagine how smug these reprehensible pieces of Christian propaganda will be while STILL acting like they’re the biggest victim of systemic oppression (spoiler alert, they aren’t). Can Pure Flix sink to an even LOWER level than they’ve managed to in the past? With God on their side, ANYTHING is possible! Let’s find out!!
After the events of the last film (ugh…), Pastor Dave (David AR White) has been released from jail and the charges dropped over him refusing a court order to hand over his sermons to… the government or something. THANKFULLY the movie isn’t about THAT, lest I wouldn’t have made it out of this screening in one piece, and instead we jump ahead a little bit in time where Pastor Dave has become kind of a local celebrity as the guy who’s church fought the government and won; though with celebrity comes infamy and his church has been getting a lot of heat. Apparently the church itself is affiliated with the local college (I’m ASSUMING the same one from the first film) and there’s a growing movement among the student body to have the church removed for… existing I guess (okay…) and the board of directors at the college are TERRIFIED (okay…) and ready to cow tow to the angry mob’s demands. If only something were to happen that would make the decision that much easier. Well I guess God must have been listening to THAT prayer because one of the students (Mike C Manning) is angry at the church due to his girlfriend (Samantha Boscarino) dumping him over being an annoying Atheist jerk, and so he throws a brick through the window. Wouldn’t you know it though; the brick hits a gas pipe and EXPLODES the freaking thing along with David’s best buddy from the previous films, Reverend Jude (Benjamin A Onyango). Well now that a poor pipe work and a hot headed kid have done most of the work for them, the College Board decides to take the land away from Reverend Dave with the right of Eminent Domain (okay…) which our stalwart hero CLEARLY has a problem with. He’s SO angry about this that he does the ONE THING he really doesn’t want to do which is to call his Atheist brother in the big city Pearce (John Corbett) to help him fight his case against the college. With some resignation and more than a bit of smugness, Pearce agrees to take the case and the two set forth to plan the best defense they have to keep the land and get the church rebuilt. Can the two brothers put aside their differences long enough to save this house of God along with their strained relationship? Just how far will the (supposedly) anti-Christian protesters go to destroy this church, and how far will the other side go to keep it? Is it just me, or did this movie make a REALLY good decision by having David AR White be sad the whole time?
God’s Not Dead 2 is one of the most detestable films that I have ever seen in my life, and I was ready to hate this one even more. I mean, what am I supposed to expect from the studio that brought us Old Fashioned, I’m Not Ashamed, and the FIRST God’s Not Dead? The only thing surprising about their horrendous filmography is that Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas and War Room aren’t among them; both of which are films that are right in their awful wheelhouse. So I sat there waiting for this film to do something completely tone oblivious and offensive like say… co-opt the Charleston Church shooting as a Christian tragedy rather than one about White Supremacy, or even put a fake ass SCROTUS-a-like as one of the good guys against… I don’t know, whatever the hell makes David A R White wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. The thing is though… while this is STILL undeniably a Pure Flix movie and has some truly hateful and obnoxious moments in it… it’s actually not that bad. I know. I’m as shocked as you are, and maybe it’s due to how low my expectations were that I’m feeling so… not rage fueled about this, but the shift in tone and focus from a WAR AGAINST EVERYONE WHO ISN’T LIKE YOU to a story about a few people (some of faith) that are struggling with their own demons, egos, and senses of right and wrong has basically turned the third entry in the most despicable series of films imaginable into… well one of the BETTER religious films since this whole disturbing trend has kicked off. Oh wait, Dana Loesch is in this as a voice of reason. NEVER MIND THEN! NOTHING TO SEE HERE!!
Okay, so before I tear this one apart for what it STILL manages to do wrong, let me first explain what they did right; or I guess more accurately, what they did LESS wrong. Here are a few things that aren’t in the movie that were IN FACT in the previous films. There is not a bogus court case where one side wishes to eradicate Christianity (the second film); rather it’s a land dispute that’s fueled by swaying political opinions and ends up escalating due to terrible behavior on each side. The side AGAINST the Church doesn’t hire a vampire from the ACLU who declares that the court case will prove once and for all that GOD IS DEAD (also the second film). While atheists don’t really get as much respect as Christians do in this movie, they are not egotistical philosophy professors who FORCE their students to write GOD IS DEAD on a sheet of paper in order to pass their class (the first one), nor are they stereotypical liberal bloggers who hunt down minor Christian celebrities to bum rush them into shitty interviews (also the first one). There is not a Muslim father who beats the shit out of his daughter when he finds out that she’s converting to Christianity (the first one and it’s just as despicable as it sounds). Basically, this movie managed to pull back on most of its more egregious forms of propaganda, and while I’ll CERTAINLY be getting into what’s still insidious about this movie, the effort is VERY much appreciated; especially because what they replaced all that with is actually some REALLY solid dramatic material that works so much better than an awful studio like this has any right to produce. The key here is that the movie focuses on CHARACTERS instead of ARGUMENTS which means that we spend much more time with the people this story is about and actually get a chance to like them instead of just see them as representative of a bigger cause. As much as I’m loath to say anything nice about David AR White, he gives a really great and rather nuanced performance as the guy who WANTS to do the right thing and thinks he KNOWS what the right thing is, but is clearly in conflict with himself, his pride, and his sense of loss due to the death of a close friend. On top of that, this movie got the PHENOMENAL John Corbett (United States of Tara) to play his brother and he does an amazing job of humanizing David AR White’s character and adding an air of legitimacy to this movie. I don’t know the guy’s personal life, but this is not a performance that comes across as someone who’s there just to spout lines that will fuel a specific agenda (even if the script DOES make him a bit of a strawman at points) rather he’s a great actor giving a solid performance that you can picture in any number of legal dramas or even a down to earth comedy.
The movie also knows to pull back and show humility a lot more than its previous incarnations would; particularly when it comes to the B story about the kid who threw the brick that blew up the church. In any other Pure Flix movie, he wouldn’t have been an actual CHARACTER in this and would have instead been something the audience can point to as THE ENEMY; much like the abusive Muslim father in the first film. In here though? There was GENUINE nuance and it didn’t really set him up to be on one side or the other of some bigger issue. He’s a non-believer to be sure, but he’s NOT a hateful person looking to bring Christianity to its knees and is instead an ANGRY YOUNG MANTM who fucked up pretty badly and is stricken with guilt over it. Even the whole non-believer thing is given REAL CONTEXT, as he’s not just some guy who’s angry at God which is so often the way that Atheism/agnosticism is portrayed in these kinds of movies; particularly with Professor Radisson in the first film (who died by the end because that’s what happens to Atheists I guess). I won’t spoil it here because it’s worth keeping a surprise if you DO see this movie, but let’s just say that it’s something I completely believe does happen all the time and is not something a franchise THIS invested in one sided propaganda would ever have even considered doing prior to this film. While the other entries were balanced about as well as a fight between The Rock and an ACTUAL rock (pretty easy to pin if it doesn’t even TRY to kick out!), this one evens the scales to a remarkable degree. Not COMPLETELY balanced as we’ll discuss how they still tip things in the wrong direction soon enough, but grading on the scale of what these movies WERE up until now, it’s almost worth cheering them for going so far out of their way to try and turn this franchise around. As to why this one is SO drastically different than the previous two entries, I’m guessing that this is entirely the influence of the new writer/director Michael Mason who’s replacing Harold Cronk in the director’s chair as well as Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon when it comes to writing duties. I don’t know where this guy came from as this is literally the ONLY thing he has on his IMDb page so far, but since everything else is the same from the last two films (Pure Flix, David AR White, even The News Boys), it really feels like this guy’s influence is what potentially saved this movie from being another insufferable propaganda piece; or at least one that isn’t so overtly the case.
Let’s be real here. Whether or not Pure Flix managed to make a solid drama about characters going through grief, betrayal, hardships, and sacrifice, this is still an Evangelical company and this is still an Evangelical movie. They toned it down SEVERELY, but you can still see glimpses of propaganda rearing its ugly head throughout this. Some of it is coding where young people (and particularly young people of color) are shown to be left leaning activists who want to shut down “FREE SPEECH” because they find it “OFFENSIVE”. Where did David AR White’s brother go to live his Atheist life? Chicago of course. If you’re pet isn’t losing their mind while you watch this thing, you might want to check and see if it’s actually a person in an animal suit, because this thing dog whistles incessantly. Then there’s stuff that they just omit completely because confronting THAT would have been one step too far into being a REAL examination of modern day Christianity; or at least the kind that Pure Flix ascribes to. Josh Wheaton (oh yeah, he’s back in this) explains that he thinks his religious beliefs are a TESTAMENT to his civil rights advocacy because Jesus was the original Social Justice Warrior, which is certainly an opinion many people have about the guy (say what you will about the religion around him, he himself was a pretty solid dude), but the film VERY NOTICEABLY lacks any LGBTQIA+ characters which is a community that is constantly under threat by the kind of Christians that this film is explicitly pandering to. They managed to avoid having Muslims portrayed as violent, extreme, and fanatical… by having absolutely no Muslim characters in this or characters of ANY other religion frankly. In this world, religion equals Christianity, and everyone who ISN’T a Christian is a follow of some variation of Atheism. It’s a very narrow world view that these movies try to cultivate (a very clean US vs THEM divide), and while they calmed down on the vitriolic sentiments ABOUT said divide, it’s still a VERY incorrect outlook on the world to begin with. Christianity isn’t under fire and is not under any real threat of persecution. At most, people are asking that they evolve their beliefs to fit with the modern world (as much as Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air for the Vatican, they still haven’t fully addressed the systemic abuse scandals; nor has his comments about LGBTQIA+ issues been the most enlightened) and for them to not assume dominance over every aspect of society. Despite this movie’s more heartfelt and less extremist way of presenting itself, it cannot escape being what it is; a film that is made by and for a community that has systematically fought against necessary progress in society and sees itself as a huge victim in an ever changing and growing society. They’ve stopped throwing a tantrum and in some respects could even be considered polite and reasonably presentable, but even then their ideas are repugnant and they’re within this film even if they’ve been toned and down to a startlingly refreshing degree.
Had this movie been made by any other studio, I’d still have some serious reservations about it. The fact that it’s made by Pure Flix makes those reservations all the more resolute, and so I still can’t really recommend this movie to anyone despite its attempts to not be as straight up EVIL as its previous incarnations were. If Pure Flix is GENUINELY heading in a new direction that doesn’t attack anyone different from them and shows a degree of humility in their beliefs, well they’re gonna have to do better than this and they need to do it for more than one movie. At this point, I consider this a fluke and little else and it behooves Pure FLix to distance themselves from the mistakes they’ve made in their previous films if they ever want to be taken seriously by film critics. I get the feeling that’s not what their after as their audience has proven to be rather loyal despite the consternation of the rest of us who are more or less forced to engage with these films, but even if they go back to their old ways (or God forbid get even WORSE), for a brief moment I’ll admit that they almost got it right. ALMOST. Seriously though, DANA FREAKING LOESCH!?