War Room is a gold-plated piece of Bible thumping that’s resonating with the same audience that watches Jimmy Stewart get touched by an angel every December in It’s a Wonderful Life—and cry next to Christmas trees, despite that film’s many hackneyed religious devices. Directed by Alex Kendrick, who’s made a series of successful faith-based movies with his brother Stephen out of Georgia over the last decade, the movie is explicitly pitched at the 70 percent of Americans who identify as Christians but somehow feel ignored by secular Hollywood. The film preaches to its flock, of course, insisting over and over that a moral life can only be lived through the grace of Jesus Christ, but War Room is definitely not some dreary, dorky session of Sunday school. From its very opening moments, when we see black female real estate agent confabbing with a mixed race couple in suburban Atlanta—it’s clear that the film, though proselytizing only at itself, is at least savvy enough to realize that “itself” doesn’t necessarily look like Mike Huckabee or Pat Robertson.
War Room, indeed, is both a product and a reflection of 2015 America. There’s no sniveling about a purer time in the country and no coded nostalgia for the past. Despite more people checking the box for religiously unaffiliated than ever before, belief in God is still hip enough that Barack Obama speaks continuously, as he’s done since before he was elected president, about the importance of prayer in his life. In the film, prayer is exactly what is missing for upper class couple Elizabeth (Priscilla Shirer) and Tony (T.C. Stallings), whose marriage is deteriorating in a morass of arguments over money and his wandering eye. Elizabeth sells the home of a wizened elderly woman named Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), who encourages her to “respect your husband and pray to God to fix him.” A tear-soaked scene in which Elizabeth exorcises Satan from her house serves as the movie’s “I’ll never be hungry again” jamboree of classic Georgian ham.
The title refers to a closet in Miss Clara’s home that she has gutted of clothes in favor of Bible verses. And while “war room” is an explicit combat metaphor, most of the movie is as soft and fluffy as an Easter Bunny. Every note of the plot—from the wisecracking best friend to the music-pumping getting-stuff-done montages—is cribbed directly from the cliché-ridden Hollywood dreck that the movie seems to buck against. And yet, the cumulative effect is rather easy to swallow. Perhaps that’s because the film’s protagonist is a woman who talks about being pushed to the back burner in a male-oriented society; or because, for all the film’s mentions of the Christian Lord, it ultimately makes a more Jesuitical point about following the Golden Rule. Director Kendrick shows commendable restraint during a late scene in which he appears as Tony’s boss at the Big Pharma company he works for—and forgives Tony for a workplace transgression without once bringing up the name of God.
The Kendrick brothers sidestep social issues, which also seem like an unconscious aping of glossy Hollywood, in which pesky little political realties don’t exist. A scene in which a knife-wielding attacker drops his weapon because his intended victim invokes the name of Jesus is particularly ludicrous. War Room, however, does deal with the sin of marital infidelity in a facile 15-minute subplot, which is most interesting for being released mere weeks after the hack of spouse-cheating website Ashley Madison. The Bible Belt was revealed to be ripe with Ashley Madison members, leading one Louisiana minister to even commit suicide after being exposed. Another Christian blogger and Ashley Madison member from Texas took to YouTube to admit, with supportive wife by his side, his “fleshly desires” that have been “completely cleansed.” Makes one wonder if the box office success of War Room can be partially attributed to sorry husbands looking for the perfect flick for an atonement date night. B–