by Ben Sachs
There's a scene that occurs about a half hour into War Room, a low-budget drama that replaced Straight Outta Compton as the number-one movie in America a couple weeks ago and currently sits third on the box-office chart. An old woman—presented as a wise, voice-of-reason type—is meeting with the real estate agent who's going to help her sell her home. To find out whether she wants to work with this agent, the old woman asks her about her religious life. How often does she go to church? the old woman asks. Occasionally, the agent answers. Does your pastor only preach occasionally? the old woman retorts. The agent explains that she's more spiritual than religious and feels the need to pray only now and then—her relationship with God is "not too hot, not too cold." To teach her a lesson, the old woman serves the agent a cup of lukewarm coffee, which the younger woman promptly rejects. People drink coffee hot or cold, the old woman explains, but never in between. Not even the Lord likes coffee that way—and coffee, when you think about it, is a lot like religious faith.
The film has drawn fundamentalist audiences in large numbers despite a relative absence of advertisements or positive reviews. As a movie and as a piece of rhetoric, War Room is generally inept. (That coffee metaphor is just one example of its ineptitude—does the old woman mean to say that atheism is acceptable in God's eyes, since atheism, according to her logic, is like iced coffee?) Still, it preaches that prayer is valuable and that women should be as subservient to their husbands as they're subservient to God, and for many viewers, those lessons are worth the price of admission.
As a nonbeliever and a feminist, I reject War Room's lessons, but I can see how others might take comfort in them. The film, directed by Alex Kendrick from a script he wrote with his brother Stephen, hammers its points home in a spirit of unwavering certainty. It's a fundamentalist work that tells viewers exactly how to think and behave. The filmmakers' didactic stance is reflected in their visual approach—the images serve mainly to illustrate what's imparted by the dialogue, and none of them convey any sense of style. Yet I'll concede that this simplicity communicates a strong sense of purpose. The Kendricks have a message to spread, and they're not going to let a pesky thing like artistry stand in their way.
With its generic portraits of normal suburban life and hard-sell approach, War Room suggests a pharmaceutical ad but with prayer in place of medication. It shows how the real estate agent goes from being miserable to having a perfect existence after she starts spending a few hours a week talking to God. At the start of the film, Liz (Priscilla C. Shirer) is extremely unhappy in her marriage to her husband of 16 years. He berates her whenever they're together, and he keeps her in the dark about what he does on his frequent business trips. (Incidentally he works as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.) At one point he admits to a friend that he wouldn't care if his wife were to suddenly drop dead. The tension between spouses has had an adverse effect on the couple's ten-year-old daughter, who believes that her parents no longer love her because they fight all the time.
Liz enters into a friendship with the old woman, Miss Clara, in hopes of finding some solace in life. Clara listens to her problems and advises her that the only solution lies in prayer—Liz shouldn't confront her husband over his emotionally abusive behavior, but petition God to make him change his ways. "It's your job to stand by him and pray for him," says Clara with bible-thumping force. "You got to pray for him to let him do what only he can do, then stand out of the way and let him do it!" Liz decides to take Clara's advice and, acting on another of the old woman's suggestions, converts her bedroom closet into a "war room," where she can pray with newfound fervor. The plan works: the husband, Tony, begins to take greater interest in his wife and daughter, and he cuts ties with the woman he'd been dating on his business trips to Atlanta.
Would Tony have been a better husband all along if Liz had prayed for him more often? That's what the Kendricks have to say, and their stance feels a lot like victim blaming. As far as the movie shows, Liz does nothing wrong in the marriage—Tony is the aggressor, and Liz argues with him only when he provokes her. Anyone can see that Tony is a callous bully, but War Room argues that only God can make this clear to him, and that God intervenes in human affairs only when summoned by prayer. The movie makes prayer seem like a magic spell that trumps human agency in every situation, suggesting that those who don't pray are simply powerless against God's will.
War Room is optimistic in that it says that good things can come to anyone who prays. The film concludes with Miss Clara delivering a monologue about the need for more prayer in our culture, which is accompanied by shots of people praying in a variety of locations (a schoolroom, a baseball field, a generic-looking office). It's a vision of harmony that would seem to preclude the existence of non-Christians, let alone nonbelievers. I'd guess that women who stand up to abusive husbands aren't part of this vision either.