Sinner finds Mr. Wright
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, February 25, 2011
David G. Evans's "The Grace Card" is a Christian drama about a racist cop and his gospel-preaching partner who . . . hey, wait a second. Where are you going? Don't leave.
Yes, it's true. Evans's spiritual drama commits the cinematic sin of delivering its evangelical message with a heavy hand. But powerful lead performances and the filmmaker's noble attempt at holding a magnifying glass over the Deep South's still-contentious race relations help "The Grace Card" edge closer to the realm of mainstream entertainment. It's not just a dry sermon in feature-length form.
That's always been the knock on Christian-themed films, dating as far back as Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 epic, "The King of Kings." Movies made to spread God's word have had to bear the cross of scornful movie critics who hastily dismiss religious storytellers because they choose to put the message ahead of performance, pacing, editing, score, screenwriting and other important elements
most audiences look for in a film.
Making his directorial debut, Evans works from Howard Klausner's script about Bill "Mac" McDonald (Michael Joiner), a Memphis police officer who continues to mourn the death of a child he lost in a hit-and-run accident. Bitter and emotionally disconnected, Mac carries a chip on his broad shoulders and is quick to lash out at anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. His beleaguered wife, Sara (Joy Parmer Moore), and the couple's surviving son, Blake (Rob Erickson), are mentally and spiritually drained from trying to hold their broken family unit together. Meanwhile, bigoted Mac doesn't bother to mask the contempt he feels for his new partner, Sam Wright (Michael Higgenbottom), an African American cop who moonlights as a parish leader in an up-and-coming Christian church.
Suffice it to say, Mac's a damaged soul in need of saving. Can you guess if the subtly named Mr. Wright is the right man for the job?
Let's start with the positives, because that's the Christian thing to do. "The Grace Card" hires veteran actors instead of relying on churchgoing civilians eager to spread the good word on screen. Joiner convinces us that Mac's a jerk but wisely
retains a shred of the character's humanity because he knows the film's third-act redemption will fail if we flat-out hate this vile man. Higgenbottom, for his part, is compassionate without being corny, while Moore is impressive as the defeated
spouse in desperate need of her own lifeline. "The Grace Card" even finds a minor role for Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. ("An Officer and a Gentleman"). The 74-year-old actor plays Sam's grandfather in three short scenes, though his garbled speech makes the character's motivational bons mots practically inaudible.
Evans also likes to use hand-held cameras that produce unpolished, in-the-moment cinematography. The creative decision could have been due to budget constraints, but the technique lends "The Grace Card" the gritty appearance of an indie film or a documentary. This works particularly well when Mac and Sam are responding to late-night police calls where they stare down the racism that seemingly runs rampant through Memphis's streets and alleys.
Yet it's during one of these crime-preventing runs that Klausner rolls out the film's major twist, a clumsily plotted and embarrassingly coincidental encounter that sends this Bible-toting buddy-cop drama down an entirely different path. Some might be able to take a leap of faith and follow "The Grace Card" as it shifts gears. I couldn't. The ripple converted me into a nonbeliever. As a result, Evans's pre-credit preaching felt like it was laid on extra thick.
Still, the director and his cast earn a decent amount of critical goodwill before the sermon sets in. "The Grace Card" joins a handful of films - "Fireproof," "Facing the Giants," "The Ultimate Gift" - that are trying hard to appeal to audiences outside the church's walls. At the same time, the film's shortcomings show how far the Christian genre has to go if it someday hopes to preach to anyone but the choir.
Contains violence and thematic elements.