The typical hero of a faith-based film measures their own satisfaction with the ending by the metric ton. If you stuck a teaspoon in the ending of the average Christian film, you’d pull it out dripping with enough sweet goo to give everyone in the world a mouthful of cavities. We don’t merely like redemption. We want redemption spelled out in letters large enough they can be seen from space. The challenge, then, for anyone who has set out to make a film for Christians, is to not give the audience what they want, but to give them something good instead.
As a critic who occasionally watches and reviews Christian films, I have never entirely sorted out what my expectations for the genre ought to be. It is tempting to say that one ought to lower their expectations for Christian films simply because they are made with smaller budgets and frequently employ non-professional actors. On the other hand, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is arguably a Christian film, was made for a quarter mill, featured mostly unproven actors, and yet has rightly earned a place on lists of great comedies, great indies, and great films in general. But is it really fair to compare every Christian film to this one shining example of excellence? Christian films tend to be cheap, too, but there are plenty of fine cheap films. Pi was made for sixty-eight grand, and Primer was made for seven. But is it fair to compare every cheap film with Primer? The credits for The Muppet Movie feature Orson Welles, but to complain The Muppet Movie isn’t Citizen Kane is a classic case of missing the point. Suffice to say, the apologia often made for Christian films being graded on a heavy curve seems equal parts fair and unfair to me. We should neither depend too much on the “but it was made for cheap” excuse, and neither should we condemn too harshly with “and it feels cheap.”
The River Thief tells the story of Diz (Joel Courtney), an adolescent sneak who slithers down the Snake River looking for his father, and for trouble, and finding both at the same time. Diz is likely named after St. Dismas, the relatively unknown historical figure who vindicated Christ while hanging beside him. In a small town just off the Snake, Diz tries and fails to impress Selah (Raleigh Cain), a young waitress, but she impresses him instead with her hard-to-please attitude. The girl’s grandfather Marty is unpredictably merciful when Diz tries to skip out on a thirty-dollar tab for burgers (stealing is hungry work, apparently), and thus begins a hit-and-miss relationship between Diz and Marty which carries through to the end of the film.
All the characters are hintingly named. Diz is the most obscure, and most viewers won’t solve the riddle of his name without Google. Selah the waitress lives up to her name, as she gets Diz to pause and think about the way he is spending his life. The elderly Marty is, I suspect, named after the great reformer Martin Luther, and Marty’s role in the film is that of reforming the soul of the wayward Diz.
One of the great virtues of The River Thief is an atmosphere of deeper significance which attends one scene after another— or, what poet Robert Wrigley referred to as the “air of meaning more” in a class I took from him back in college. The “air of meaning more” is that hard-to-pin-down quality of ineffable suggestiveness which emerges from referencing the right objects, the right names, the right places, and using the right words. The “air of meaning more” is the sensation that there is something behind a closed door, even if it is never opened. The feeling that it’s a long way from the bottom of the boat to the bottom of the lake, but a strong reticence to check. Simply put, pretty much everything in The River Thief seems loaded. Even the things in the film that don’t work probably have a rationale. One strains to hear the lyrics to a song which plays on the radio in the film in case themes of the film should be clarified in the lyrics. One glances around at the objects which hang on the walls of a restaurant or a bedroom in case the story exists in microcosm in some little photograph or bric-a-brac there. Writer and director ND Wilson achieves this effect relatively effortlessly, and the first act of the film has an especially light touch. The theft of a shirt, Diz pacing along railroad tracks, references to “marks that can’t be washed off”… the first twenty minutes pass while the viewer gets the feeling there is something more going on.
Most Christian films do not require or even allow the viewer to search for secondary meaning in the sets, the untouched objects which fill the sets, the costumes, the names of the characters. The marriage in Fireproof is no marriage, but a token marriage. The characters are not characters, but token characters who don’t have real problems, but token problems. The things in most Christian films do not seem like real things, but placeholders for ideas. The token character is an end unto itself, and there is nothing more to see or discern than what is cursory— unlike a real human being, or even a real character, who can be known more deeply over the course of time. Wilson has made a film which repays a roving eye and a curious imagination. I could probably still find new correlations and connections between the characters on a second viewing, and that’s not a claim I have ever made about a faith-based film.
The plot is boilerplate, but nonetheless serviceable to the themes Wilson wants to investigate. I am personally acquainted with not only ND Wilson (who I simply knew as “Nate” back when we went to high school together), but also his grandfather Jim Wilson, and anyone who finds the generosity of Marty unbelievable should spend a few minutes with Jim. Jim Wilson is an old-school evangelical, and a man who bears some of the wonderful oddities of any human being who keeps a very close relationship with Jesus Christ. Few people who meet Jim ever forget him, and everyone who meets Jim admires him greatly. When Marty tells Diz that he can’t steal his car because he must take it as a gift, I only heard Jim. To resist Marty’s kindness on the grounds it is implausible is simply cynicism. Such men do walk the earth. Wilson is interested in the gritty goodness of the world in the same way Darren Aronofsky is interested in the gritty nastiness of the world.
That gritty goodness is not always carefully articulated, though. Conventional wisdom suggests a fictional character can come to salvation in two very different ways. In a film which prizes realism, a character might repent of his sins and be baptized. In a fable or a myth, a character might be saved by finding a coin, putting on a ring, kissing a prince, jumping in a river. I do not mean to impose a binary choice on the storyteller; rather, these are the opposite ends of a spectrum, like hot and cold, and a filmmaker might ease up and down the scale many times over the course of ninety minutes. Some amount of finesse is helpful, though. If the father of the prodigal son began quoting the Ten Commandments to his boy after dressing him in a fine robe, we would be confused. The typical faith-based film is all thumbs when it comes to the mythic, which is why such films often feature a rushed, clunky scene where Johnny prays the sinner’s prayer. As The River Thief builds to a violent conclusion, Marty speaks about God to the villains just like a pious old man would. However, a few moments later, as a dead Diz speaks to us from the Resurrection of the Righteous, I had to wonder whence came the salvation of this character?
So far as a parable is concerned, I could believe Diz’s self-abnegation and sacrifice for Marty and Selah was entrance into the divine life— in the same way I believe the prodigal son “coming to himself” and receiving his father’s robe are his salvation. However, the latter half of The River Thief is largely devoid of the parabolic and plays more like a straight drama. However, the serious tone of the denouement is bafflingly undercut by cheap laughs from a comic relief character that would have been far better suited anywhere else. When Clyde is about to murder Marty, Diz exonerates the old man and we cannot help remembering the good thief crucified beside Christ. While St. Dismas is with Christ “in paradise,” the scene in Scripture is attended by a host of uncanny signs. The fact that something “happens in Scripture” does not mean that it is fitting in just any other story. I could almost believe a transfigured Christ which showed up at the end Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but not a transfigured Christ who shows up in the middle of the ice during the climactic game of The Mighty Ducks. If Wilson wanted Diz’s vindication of Marty to be salvific, the whole mood and atmosphere of the third act need to be elsewhere.
Stepping away from the major themes of the film, we find a mixed bag. The script is uneven. Marty’s suggestion that Diz is lucky to have “an old man to die with” is worthy of Cormac McCarthy, but the ersatz-blasphemy of “I do not make threats. I am!” from villainous drug runner Clyde is worthy of Left Behind’s arch-baddie Nicolae Carpathia. We find Diz silently contemplating Marty’s proverbs about gratitude whilst tucked up into the fetal position, fingers pressed to the pulse in his neck, however, the parallels between Clyde and Pontius Pilate are thick and heavy as a bucket of lead— we probably could have survived with “What is truth?” or the handwashing, but not both. The third act of the film really needed the light, dancing poetic fluency of the first act.
While The River Thief is unbalanced, several days after finishing the film, I still find it impressive that Wilson was not willing to pander to the faith-based audience. The hero doesn’t get to live, let alone get the girl. Viewers will have to take satisfaction in something other than a streamlined, prefabricated lady and the tramp story of redemption. As the film nears the end, Selah takes a ride down by the river and we see her hand out the open window, making wave-like motions over the water. The film should have ended here, or the final word should have been hers, for Selah becomes the one with the mystery to mediate on. The image of her undulating fingers suggests she has absorbed something of Diz’s river, and something of Diz himself, but what? Perhaps it cannot be put into words.