Kevin Smith’s Red State had an infamous, three ring circus-worthy world première at Sundance this past January, complete with Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church—the nation’s hardest working in-real-life trolls and the inspiration for the violent extremist group in the film—picketing outside. As far as spectacles go, it wouldn’t be outdone by anything else in the year’s Park City offerings, even if many left in a huff when Smith auctioned the film off to himself after the credits rolled. But as far as religion-baiting went, Red State was just one of a crowd of films there to feature broad villainy in the name of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity.
This year’s festivalgoers were also introduced to: Patrick Wilson as Joe, the oppressive born-again husband of Liv Tyler’s former addict Shana in The Ledge; Pierce Brosnan as Dan Day, the head of a megachurch who conspires to cover up an accidental murder he committed by pinning it on one of his followers in Salvation Boulevard; and Eddie Marsan as James, a man whose faith doesn’t keep him from beating, pissing on, or raping his wife Hannah (Olivia Colman) in Tyrannosaur. Compared to that lot, Red State’s Abin Cooper, the hate-filled, murderous pastor of the fictional Five Points Church played by Michael Parks, looks practically on the level. At least he’s open about his insane agenda.
Themes emerge from every film festival, unplanned connections and similarities inevitably appearing when you’re watching a wide range of features. You only need squint your eyes at a schedule grid and they’ll surface: Lesbians of color! Prep-school angst! Documentaries of questionable veracity! It’s not as though someone decided, “This will be the year of the abusive evangelical!” But taken together, these titles were enough to make some—to make me, certainly—squirm in discomfort at the easy targets they set up and then knock down. They invite the question: Are indie films unfair to Christianity? Has churchgoing become the new camera-pans-over-pristine-suburbia cliché—a shiny surface soon to be revealed as disguising roiling transgressions? In The Ledge, there’s a scene where Joe rolls up his sleeves to reveal tattoos as he divulges a dark past that’s literally hidden under his conservative button-down. In Tyrannosaur, the Christian charity shop at which Hannah works is a way to get away from her terrible home life, but faith itself provides no shelter for her. It’s just another obscuring layer on top of the awful truth of abuse.