Rated PG for thematic elements throughout.
Running time: 120 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
“War Room” is the most slickly made faith-based film I’ve seen yet in terms of production values, but that doesn’t make it quote-unquote good, per se.
It certainly looks better than, say, the Nicolas Cage version of “Left Behind,” a dull groaner about the end times. It’s not nearly as top-to-bottom atrocious as the hilariously inept “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” (although it’s just about as subtle). And it has more moments of emotional honesty than the overtly wacky “Moms’ Night Out,” although not many.
Despite its glossy visuals — including lean camerawork and smooth editing — it’s still stuck with a script that repeatedly hammers you over the head with its proselytizing. Which is strange given that it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing “War Room” who wasn’t already a true believer. And it’s a fervent audience, as evidenced by the movie’s No. 1 status at the box office this past weekend, beating out “Straight Outta Compton.” I had to see a matinee of it out of sheer curiosity, if nothing else.
And “War Room” is indeed a curiosity — a strange beast with sleek packaging and a silly script. It basically preaches that a woman can transform her lying, sneaking, stealing husband out of his evil ways through prayer. From the outset of the film from director and co-writer Alex Kendrick (whose previous faith-based efforts include “Fireproof” and “Courageous”), it’s clear that Tony Jordan (former pro football player T.C. Stallings) is not a good dude. A traveling pharmaceuticals salesman, he’s charismatic when he’s out on the road — especially with the foxy ladies who cross his path — but abrupt and dismissive once he returns to his expansive North Carolina home.
His wife, successful real estate agent Elizabeth (Priscilla C. Shirer, a preacher making a surprisingly confident acting debut), tries to stay strong and withstand his cruelty for the greater good of the family, but their sweet, bright daughter Danielle (Alena Pitts) has a hard time hiding how much her father’s distance hurts her. (Pitts gives the most authentic performance of the entire cast, by the way. The few decently moving scenes feature her in moment-of-truth conversations with each of the actors playing her parents. But then she gets stuck anchoring an awkward subplot involving competitive double-dutch rope-jumping, which apparently is a real thing.)
Just in time, though, Elizabeth takes on a new client: the elderly and pious Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), a widow who’s ready to sell her 100-year-old house. Miss Clara is such an egregious example of the Magical Negro figure — even in a film populated predominately by black actors — she’s borderline offensive and unintentionally hilarious. She’s pushy and outspoken but also clairvoyant, apparently, because within minutes of meeting Elizabeth, she senses that her marriage is in trouble. Clearly, going to church more is the answer. But Elizabeth must go further than that. She must do what Miss Clara has done, which is remove all the clothes, shoes and handbags from one of her closets and turn it exclusively into a room for prayer. This is the war room of the film’s title: the place to strategize with scripture. (Viewers who live in lofts — or anywhere in New York City, for that matter — will have trouble replicating this exercise at home.)
And magically, it works! In no time, Tony has opened his heart to Jesus and admitted the error of his wicked ways. First, he (almost) cheats on Elizabeth and loses his job when he gets caught selling samples on the side. But really, all her prayers are answered pretty quickly. Tony even gets in on Danielle’s double-dutch action, which held no interest for him previously. The Lord truly works in mysterious ways.
But “War Room” is also about Satan, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s bizarre monologue in which she walks around her house — and even steps outside into the yard — shouting at the devil to leave her family alone as overwhelming, inspirational music swells in the background. Kendrick (who co-wrote the script with his brother, Stephen) doesn’t even bother with the obvious cutaway shot of baffled neighbors reacting to this late-night rant for a quick laugh. This climactic moment is deadly serious. Such is the bubble of piety in which this film exists.
Miss Clara gets the last word, though. In increasingly passionate tones, she wails on and on about the need to create an army of prayer warriors throughout this land, once again perpetuating the notion of Christian persecution. As her booming narration continues — I mean, she’s actually shouting at this point — images of people all over the world and various walks of life flash across the screen. They’re all praying. They’re all united. I’m sure it’s a fortifying message for the faithful in the audience, but it’s unlikely to reach the people who’d rather use their closets for hanging clothes.