I’ll be the first to admit: I am too quick to mock and dismiss Christian movies. I think it’s partly because I find our apparent need to even have “Christian” rom-coms and “Christian” sports movies a little bizarre to begin with (which is ironic, considering I’m best-known for writing Christian suspense novels).
Or maybe it’s just because so many Christian movies have been so famously bad, evoking a local church stage production—in everything from acting to lighting—more than an actual movie.
However, there’s been a number of good ones along the way. Next week, I will offer an annotated list of my top ten Christian films, but today I want to review the one I saw on Palm Sunday: The Case for Christ.
I knew this one had great potential the moment I saw the preview.
And I was totally right.
First off, the cast: rather than being filled with has-been ‘80s television actors and relatives of the producers, this cast was solid: Erika Christensen, who I first saw absolutely stealing the show in the depressingly heavy-handed Y2K flick Traffic; Frankie Faison, from The Wire and all the Silence of the Lambs movies; screen legend (and requisite Breaking Bad alum) Robert Forster; and Faye Dunaway, who doesn’t really bring anything to the table she sits behind for the duration of her 3-minute cameo.
Then there’s Mike Vogel, who plays the main character, Chicago Tribune crime reporter Lee Strobel, whose book this film is attempting to adapt. I knew I’d seen him somewhere.
Turns out it was in the forgettable found-footage monster movie Cloverfield and on a craptastic and short-lived TV show called Under the Dome, which completely wasted Dean Norris (a horrible crime). Neither performance left much of an impression. But the cut of the trailer told me this was worth checking out anyway. Besides, I read the book in the late ‘90s (who didn’t?) and loved it.
My enthusiasm was dampened from the first frame, however, by the “Pure Flix” logo. Some of the stinkiest stinkers I’ve seen have borne that brand. However, it was just a minute later that I saw two more words, which erased all doubt: Jon Gunn.
Jon Gunn wrote and directed one of my favorite movies, 2000’s Mercy Streets, a thoroughly-nineties, zany heist movie, featuring priests, con men, roller skating, twin confusion, Eric Roberts, and an incredible soundtrack full of Jennifer Knapp, Sixpence None the Richer, and Moby.
It gave me hope that Christian movies had finally “broken through.” For years afterward, I checked IMDb every so often, to see what Jon Gunn would do next. But, apart from the cringeworthy stalkumentary My Date with Drew, he kind of disappeared. (Note: I now realize he directed the 2015 Pure Flix movie Do You Believe?, which I skipped because I think I conflated it with God’s Not Dead.)
I will say this: in the seventeen years since Mercy Streets, Jon Gunn has only gotten better and he got a stellar performance out of Vogel. The character was so driven, both in his (largely successful) quest to dominate his field and in his attempts to debunk the faith that is brainwashing his wife. He’s not a drunk, but he gets drunk. Not a jerk, but completely loses his stuff in front of his daughter, and then immediately regrets it.
And Vogel made all of this feel very human and very real.
The script was solid as well. Being a screen adaptation of a trade-level account of a bunch of scholar interviews, the writer had a real task ahead of him, spinning a compelling narrative. But, man did he ever pull it off.
Great dialogue that rang true and was completely devoid of the corny forced stuff of most Christian movies. Looking back at the guy’s credits, Touched by an Angel seems to be the mean, median, and mode of what he’s written, and yet every word works here. He nicely integrated the B-plot of the crime story Strobel was working on in a way that contributed to the whole, but didn’t bang the viewer over the head.
Other things I loved about The Case for Christ:
A Truly Epic Montage – I’ve always been a sucker for a good montage. I especially love the later montages in Rocky III that include footage from the earlier montages. You might think that a movie about a guy researching Christianity would struggle to fill a whole song’s worth of screen-time with compelling stuff. You’d be wrong. Strobel clears out space in an old storage room in the bowels of the Chicago Tribune offices and sets up a bulletin board full of photos, evidence, scrawled statements, ancient documents, and lots of string connecting everything. Add Kansas’s “Carry on My Wayward Son” (hey, the film begins in 1980!) and you’ve got a winner. Speaking of which . . .
The Early Eighties – There is so much to love here. So much nostalgia. Granted, I was like 3 or 4 when all these things happened, but I loved these little gems—people smoking at their desks, the hairspray ritual Strobel goes through in the morning, and the clothes!
Also, if this flick is to be believed, Willow Creek Church was so awesome back then! They met in an old theater, with a guy pounding out Keith Green songs on a piano up front. They should go back to that—retro!
A Great Conversion Scene – I previously wrote here about my love/hate relationship with conversion scenes. Both of my “real-publisher novels” feature them and I think they can be done well, but they are usually sloppy, trite, and not justified by plot or character development. Not so here.
I don’t think I need to throw out a spoiler alert when I tell you the guy becomes a Christian at the end of The Case for Christ, and it really is one of the most authentic on-screen conversions I’ve ever seen, while being a wonderfully understated climax for the film.
Believable Characters — Not only are the performances quite good, the characters are not divided up between heroes and villains. The older black Christian woman who leads Leslie Strobel to Christ does not magically have all the answers, even though that would make for some goosebump moments in the trailer.
She is completely shaken by Lee’s aggressiveness in one scene, to the point of being rendered speechless, and actually gives some sort-of-bad advice—ya know, like a real person, not a movie trope.
The atheists are not twirling their mustaches either. The guy helping Lee Strobel fuel his devangelical mission to “get his wife back” gives the same advice to Lee as the Christian woman gives Leslie: “First and foremost, make sure your husband/wife knows you still love him/her.”
In fact, you actually feel for Lee after his wife’s conversion, as, from his perspective, he’s lost his best friend in the world to a cult. He’s portrayed as a good husband and father, though flawed like anyone, and a very open-minded and kind man.
At the end of the day, this movie will probably be forgotten in a couple years. There are no more Family Christian Stores to keep it continually on endcaps. But I won’t forget it.
It was a nice check to my eye rolling and sarcasm and gave me hope for the future of the ubiquitous Pure Flix. At present, the film is labeled “Fresh” by review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with a critic score of 78%—better than most movies in the theater at the moment, and that is refreshing.
We don’t need “the world’s approval” of course, but after that Kirk Cameron Christmas movie broke all records for negative scores, it’s nice to see a level of Christian filmmaking that must be acknowledged, even by the critics.
Being Holy Week, this would be a great time to go to your local cineplex and check out The Case for Christ.
Be prepared: it kind of wrecked me, but then again, I’m easily affected by movies. And I was inspired by this one. Upon leaving, I kind of wanted to start a huge investigation of some kind that would result in a complex web of photos and string in my basement.
But more than that, I wanted to see The Case for Christ again.