Mercy Rule: Ice Cream For Your Darlings

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Review by Christopher Perrin

  • Praising Mercy Rule for what it doesn’t get wrong is a fairly straight forward task.  Praising the film for what it gets right is a bit trickier. As with most “Christian films,” Mercy Rule was shot on a small budget and with few recognizable faces, though the film lacks an altar call, a conversion and a K-LOVE soundtrack. Furthermore, at no point in the film does anyone interpret literally a complex passage from the NIV. Some viewers will finish the film feeling confused and disoriented.

    Consider a few of the comments from the unimpressed on Amazon’s customer reviews:

    …it stated on the back of the movie it "embraces the values of trusting God", however, they never even mentioned God to my recollection...

    It's not especially Christian. There's no mention of God at all...ever. Which is ok if you're just looking for entertainment, but it uses Fireproof as it's jump-off and leads you to believe it would be Christian-based.

    Even more disappointing than the fact that absolutely nothing ever happens in this movie… is the lack of anything to do with promoting the Gospel whatsoever.

    Faith did not play a role in the movie.

    Very little Christianity…

    I thought that Kirk Cameron was going to make a good, Christian movie for the whole family. However, this movie has nothing Christian in it which was really disappointing.

    God knows what these people think of the parable of the prodigal son or the parable of the unjust steward. Although to be fair, the most recent Amazon reviewer to award the film five stars had only two other reviews, both Bibles, and she had granted them five stars apiece, as well.

    So, is Mercy Rule a classic case of bait and switch? Lure in Christian dollars with promises of choir-preaching and pious veneration of ye olde Cult of the Family, then give ‘em an actual story instead?

    Well, yes, it is. A little.

    That God is literally absent from the film, but figuratively and meditatively and thematically present in many scenes, is likely the work of writer N.D. Wilson, who has written elegantly about baseball before.

    Unlike Cameron’s other work, Mercy Rule is a film that, from time to time, deserves to be interpreted figuratively. In the first frame of the film, we’re placed in Dante Scrap and Recycling, and the N at the center of “Dante” is mirrored back on itself so it forms a Mobius strip, a symbol of eternity. I pray it does not seem facetious to say that, with this rather minor but suggestive classical allusion, Mercy Rule has already surpassed the sum total of allegory, nuance, mystery, seduction and intrigue that could be discovered in a 100 pack CD spindle of Fireproof DVDs.

    John Miller (Kirk Cameron) is the son of an immigrant who built a scrapping business from the ground up, then passed it on to his two boys. John has two children, a son who plays Little League baseball, and a daughter named Bea who occasionally offers cynical but sage advice to her younger brother. John’s brother Ben takes pride in the fact Dante Scrap and Recycling receives no subsidies from the government. When asked by a lobbyist how much of their operating budget comes from government subsidies, Ben responds, “Zero. Zip. Zippidy. Nada. We make our own way, like God and George Washington intended.” In such moments, it is difficult to say if writer Wilson is speaking for himself, or honestly depicting blue collar conservatives, or else lampooning them. How much of the elder Millers' spirit has son John actually received? What of the little company’s namesake? If ever there was a literary character who did not “make his own way,” it was surely Dante, who, through out the Comedy, relies upon a rich and complex hierarchy of friends to lift him up to God (sometimes even sleeping while others carry him). I’m hesitant to say Wilson is lampooning conservatives, though, given the unapologetically anti-intellectual posture he has adopted in articles written for Christianity Today.

    Quoth he: I've spent hours frittering away in college philosophy clubs, alongside people who use words like prolegomena and quiddity. These intellectual dignitaries purse their lips and allow their brows to crease neatly above their noses. They express thoughts like men with tweezers trying to extract splinters from the marble toes of the goddess of reason. If you want to know what I learned from them, I can count it on one finger: Thinkers are terrified of this world.

    Personally, my favorite discussion of quiddity comes from Dorothy Sayers’ notes for the Penguin Classics edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Wilson is interested in an incarnational worldview, and as best as I can tell, “incarnational” simply means “common.” The Miller family is most certainly common, though that comment is not meant to dismiss them. Wilson finds the Millers gloriously common, perhaps in the same way Steinbeck found the Joads gloriously common.

    There are two crises at the center of Mercy Rule. The first is young Cody Miller’s want of respect from his baseball coach, and the second is the potential loss of Dante Scrap and Recycling to the government. In a rare moment of greed, John lies about the kind of materials Dante processes, declaring them hazardous so he can he receive federal subsidy money (though he knows there is little hazardous about their scrap). By declaring their material hazardous, John unwittingly subjects his business to government oversight, though he doesn't know it at the time he fills out the form. Weeks later, a government shade arrives at Dante and begins the legal process to gain control of the Miller’s livelihood. While the potential loss of the family business is the bigger crisis, comparatively little time is spent on it. The more pressing matter for Doane and Wilson is the pecking order of Cody’s team and his relationship with his coach, and after who knows how many “Cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon” stories about dads caught between work and family, it is a relief to see a father make concessions for his child, simply because many men do. John isn’t torn between work and family, he’s simply a bit uncomfortable. He wants to make his son’s big game, though he tells him he might not because he has some unusually big fish to fry at work lately, and we don’t get the sense that the world will implode if he’s stuck in the office till dark on game day. Mercy Rule dignifies the struggles of children in that the pressing world of adults is not treated as obviously more interesting. At the same time, the film is not treacly, because the struggles of children are not presented as being the hinge upon which the soul of the universe swings.

    I wish I could report that Mercy Rule followed through with this even-keeled program all the way to the credits, though, in the denouement, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory. Miller makes the big game, the team wins, he goes to City Hall and delivers a mic-dropping speech about personal responsibility and government greed, the bad guys are arrested and the day is saved. I’ve seen heartwarming episodes of Growing Pains that ended more bittersweetly. Lifeway Books might just as well have donned rubber Joel Osteen masks and hijacked the third act of the movie.  It’s Your Best Ending Now.

    Whence these faults?

    The finale of Mercy Rule seemed a good bit like the closing moments of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, wherein a plotless conversation terminates with a non-professional five minute dance sequence set to a hip-hop version of “Angels We Have Heard On High.” Of course, lacking a plot or characters or theme, Saving Christmas wasn’t a real movie, so Doane wasn’t exactly breaking any rules. Mercy Rule, on the other hand, is a real movie, so the disintegration of the thing in the end is a genuine disappointment. The big game starts at the 1:26:28 mark, and the following fifteen minutes (through the 1:41:30 mark) are a mostly wordless, mostly slow-motion montage of this game. It is unmercifully long.

    In the opening credits, the careful viewer will note the film was edited by “Postmill Factory,” an editing service which has but one other credit (I suspect Postmill Factory is simply a moniker Doane adopts), and that for a Doane-directed Cameron-fronted documentary called Unstoppable, which is about the problem of evil. I suspect Doane and Cameron (and perhaps Wilson, though he seems a genuine talent) would defend the ending of Mercy Rule with the aesthetics of Postmillenial theology. The big final ball game is poetically choreographed and dance-like. The bad guy is arrested. The good guys eat ice cream. Despite appearances, everything is getting better. The rules which apply to the end are not the rules which apply to everything which has gone before.

    The Mercy Rule crew could do with a heavy dose of “Kill your darlings,” that sage old piece of editorial advice. The proverb suggests that the aspects of your story which please you most, and which you are most protective of, have also blinded you to the desires of your audience. I return to my contention that the makers of “Christian films” are incapable of making a story about a martyrdom. Is it possible to tell a story with a happy ending without giving all the characters exactly what they want? The ending need not have been dour, but I would have liked to see the Miller’s commitment to one another put through the wringer and come out intact. What if the government did wrestle the business from Miller? How would the Millers have found contentment with less? Or returning to Fireproof, what would Caleb’s life have looked like if his marriage didn’t survive? Could he have been happy? In that film, Caleb came to faith in the midst of his struggle, though his faith was never tested, and by the end of the film, his faith in God seemed more like a tool he used to get his wife back. That same cult of the family isn’t on display in Mercy Rule, though I found the study guide for the film offered on the Mercy Rule website rather curious. The guide offers explanations of eleven key lines from the film. In the scene where John sits down to tell his wife that his lie may have cost the family the business, the following exchange passes:

    John: “Maddie, I ruined everything.”

    Maddie: “What’s her name?”

    John: “What?”

    Maddie: “What’s her name?”

    John: “No, Maddie, stop it. No.”

    Maddie: “So not ‘everything.’”

    The guide then offers the following explanation of the dialogue:

    How are John and Maddie thinking about “everything” in two different ways? John assumes that “everything” is his wealth and livelihood. Maddie corrects this by telling him that his marriage and his kids are “everything”. Our faith in God and our families is what truly matters most. Money may come and go but maintaining and working at healthy family relationships will always pay off. When our values are correctly ordered, we are freed (as John was) from the despair of losing things.

    Until Christians can make films wherein marriage and kids aren’t “everything,” they’re not going to make films about martyrdom, which means they’re not going to make genuinely Christian films. Mercy Rule offers no vision of losing the world to gain a mystery. There is no quiet contentment or hope in the end, but material desires fulfilled. Granted, numerous parables of Christ literally describe material gain, as well, though we’re always supposed to intuit the mystery of the kingdom in the coin found, the pearl acquired, the son returned, the lost sheep rescued. The blue collar, from-the-ground-up “everything” of Mercy Rule is the standard earthly “everything,” though.

    We have not seen the last of the Doane & Wilson & Cameron collaborations, and I look forward with real interest to what they put together next. If they can learn to be tougher on their characters, and on themselves, they might make something beautiful.

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