From Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess comes another strange, off-kilter and satirical movie about a strange guy with a strange, memorable name. Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is a Biblical archeologist, who dug up his fame in the form of ancient pair of shears that may or may not have been the ones used to cut Sampson's hair. Ten years later he's still trying to ride that wave with a book tour, a motor home, a scheduling assistant (Amy Ryan) and a Jewish friend in the Holy Land (Jemaine Clement). But the pastor of a church (Danny McBride) and his wife (Leslie Bibb) who are fighting for "flock members" with a reformed Satanist across the street (Will Forte) decide to fund Don for more expeditions and digs -- as long as he brings back his finds to display at their church!
|My man, Sam Rockwell.
So this is a movie that satires Christians. As you can imagine, it's a "thin ice" kind of thing. Even I, when the film was released in theaters wondered if it would be funny and all in good fun, or just annoying and purposefully degrading. Turns out it's neither. I can only speak for myself of course, but I found it funny, but also a little deeper than just "good fun." The Hess's know their Christian stereotypes, and makes caricatures out of them just enough to pull you out or reality and into the film's parallel world, and then it doesn't pull any punches. It pokes fun mostly at your typical "Bible Belt" types, and the funny and sometimes quite strange things Christians sometimes do or say.
And while the film has an overall light and casual tone, it also points out some other, more serious things. Like while the (probably not) reformed Satanist is an obvious villain, the other pastor, Tony Lazarus and his wife Joylinda are obviously more about the size of their congregation and the fame and the money than actually teaching and sharing their faith and encouraging others. They pressure Don into things, convincing him that if he illegally brings back Biblical relics, it will prove the Bible's truth to people, and they will be saved. His friend Boaz pushes and blackmails him even further -- all for personal gain. Don's crimes keep getting worse and worse, but it's always clear that his heart is in the right place and his faith is genuine. And so is his assistant Carol's -- she is the steady moral compass in the film.
|I really enjoyed her character, and the drama between these two.
So people take quite a beating from the movie's ragging, but the Christian faith itself is treated quite respectfully, and by the end of the movie a Christian message has been deftly surprised on us all. Not the Gospel message, but one that is no less true and fits the film like a glove. Sam Rockwell doesn't get the opportunity to be his usual crazy and funny self here, but his more subtle and downtrodden character is still great. I loved Don's journey, trying to figure out how he can lead people to Christ, but failing so miserably until finally he finds himself at the end of the film in a place where he can actually do some good.
The end was pretty predicable actually, but the way they got there was a series of some of the craziest, most unexpected things to happen in a movie. Well, it's a Hess film, so it was pretty fairly par for the course. Besides a huge Indiana Jones reference, a lot of the humor will go over the heads of people who aren't knowledgeable in the culture that these characters hail from; and the really good jokes are few and far between. I spent more time staring at the screen in an amused and slightly confused silence than I did actually laughing out loud, but when the jokes did hit, they were whoppers, and the amount of laughter they caused made up for the duller, simply strange bits in between. Jemaine Clement was the cause of most of the moments worthy or roaring laughter. His put-on accent and persona made everything funnier with automatic effortlessness.
|Nothing goes together like oddball characters and Hess films.
Don Verdean isn't by any means a perfect movie. It got off to such a slow start that after a little while I began to regret starting it, but it gradually and steadily became more and more worth it right up until the very end, and like that, managed to surprise and impress me. Obviously it's not the kind of film everyone would like, but at the same time it's nice that the filmmakers didn't tone anything down -- in any direction -- for the sake of not offending anyone, or including the uninitiated. It's niche film that only some people can appreciate, but it's certainly a film you won't be able to find anywhere else. It sets itself apart with wackiness and that distinct Hess tone, tapping into a plethora of unused jokes and making good use of them alongside a solid story with a sincere heart.