Saying Richard Dutcher is the best filmmaker in the realm of LDS Cinema today is (a) true, and (b) not really much of a compliment, given the competition. (Like saying Steve Young is the best quarterback ever to come from Greenwich, Connecticut)
While other LDS films seem satisfied being relentlessly mediocre, Dutcher’s movies at least try to be innovative and compelling, even if they are occasionally heavy-handed at the same time. Regardless of success or failure — and States of Grace is a success to be sure — Dutcher deserves credit for striving to make significant and memorable films that tackle emotional (often controversial) issues.
States of Grace is not the masterpiece that much of the early word-of-mouth claimed it to be; however, it is still compelling cinema. Dutcher, even with a noticeable trend towards self-indulgence, still makes films that are worth watching.
States of Grace is ostensibly the sequel to God’s Army — Dutcher’s first film from 2000 — but early on had its ‘sequelness’ minimized, likely in the universal attempt to attract a larger audience. The original prefix God’s Army II has, in fact, been removed from the credits and packaging of the DVD release entirely. Viewers of God’s Army will recognize the return of several minor characters, including the mission president who makes a comment about “doing some good today” — a key theme from the first movie. However, the connection between the films is irrelevant beyond a trivia standpoint and Dutcher is probably correct in treating States of Grace as a completely separate film.
The fundamental message of States of Grace is about forgiveness and mercy, and how to reconcile them with justice and accountability. Virtually all of the plot threads in this ensemble drama involve forgiveness in some fashion: why we need it, what happens when we don’t get it, and how the cleansing power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ helps us obtain it. The underlying theme of this film is powerful and serves as another reminder that what makes Dutcher the best LDS filmmaker today is how he embraces the spiritual element within film, while many of his contemporaries seem to shy away from it in favor of jokes about jello and home teaching.
The flaw that keeps States of Grace from A-level status, in my opinion, is one of authenticity. God’s Army worked because it involved a universe where Dutcher is an insider. It accurately depicts the highs and lows of missionary work (and LDS membership in general) because it was written and directed by someone who’s been there and has that fundamental understanding of what LDS life is like. Other people who have also been there (like myself) responded positively to God’s Army, because it was real in a way that an outsider to the Church attempting to make a film about LDS missionaries could never have grasped.
I believe Dutcher personally has pondered at great length on the Atonement and what it means for himself and humanity, and States of Grace is successful with its treatment of its spiritual subject matter. However, the framework by which this theme is presented — life in the rougher areas of Los Angeles, specifically gang life — does not have that same feel of authenticity, and the film suffers for it.
I didn’t feel that Richard Dutcher has a deep understanding of what gang life in the ghettos of Los Angeles is like — he’s not an insider to that culture, as he is with LDS culture, and thus the depiction of a former gang banger who tries to go straight through the gospel doesn’t have that same feel of authenticity that God’s Army did. I’m not talking about ‘authenticity’ as in “needs more F-words in the dialogue”, but something more subtle that’s hard to quantify.
I admit I have no personal experience in the matter myself — and could be completely wrong in this assumption — but I don’t believe any current or former gang member will see States of Grace and nod their heads at the reality of gang life depicted in the movie the same way that LDS missionaries nodded their heads at God’s Army. That sense of someone with insider knowledge giving us a realistic glimpse into a different world isn’t as present this time around, and, while it’s not absolutely vital to the spiritual thrust of the story (which succeeds on its own merits) is still a limitation.
The story of Holly, the aspiring actress who has done some things in life she’s not proud of, has a similar problem. Holly is played by Rachel Emmers (who, if I’m remembering right, was the girl who wanted her YW leader to take her away from the ‘bad place’ after hearing the Everclean boys attempt to rap in Sons of Provo).
Rachel Emmers is a good actress…but, in my opinion, miscast in this role. Her performance is fine — she has a several-minute-long monologue about the current state of her life which is good — but I still didn’t believe that Holly was really a girl who was forced to debase herself in the porn industry (even temporarily) in order to survive. It comes down, again, to that feel of authenticity. Rachel would have been absolutely perfect — in looks, personality, everything — in a role as a LDS sister missionary, for example, but is missing some sort of gravitas to effectively portray a world-weary woman worn down by the burdens of life and sin. I felt I was watching a good Mormon girl with acting talent who was taking her best guess as to what a woman like Holly would be like — not the real thing.
There are other minor flaws that keep States of Grace from being a masterpiece. Pacing is slow: at 2:06, the movie seems a little too long, with at least fifteen minutes that could have been tightened up without impacting the main story.
The short episode with the missionaries talking about polygamy with an investigator isn’t well written — lacking the nuance that the complementary missionary vignettes in God’s Army dealing with the black priesthood ban and eternal families possessed. (Surely the same writer who recognized that not all families want to be “eternal” might recognize that men aren’t going to automatically be attracted to polygamy either?)
And Dutcher spends a LOT of camera time ogling girls in scantily dressed attire — far more than is necessary to make the point, and a little hypocritical when said point was ostensibly about NOT dwelling on the female form.
Should you see States of Grace? Will you remember it and talk about it after it’s over? Will it present issues related to the Atonement and forgiveness that will cause deep reflection for some time afterwards? Despite the above complaints, the answer is still ‘Yes’, on all counts. States of Grace is a success regardless of any flaws, and worth the effort to watch. Backhanded compliment or not, States of Grace still represents the best of what LDS cinema has to offer.
Final Grade: B+
Analysis and Other Comments (possible spoilers):
(1) The fact that States of Grace has no profanity in it deserves a little bit more discussion. (Seriously, I don’t remember any profanity…even a ‘hell’) Should this film have had more profanity in it, simply from an “authenticity” standpoint? After all, “that’s how people talk”…as the cliché goes. (Note the self-fulfilling prophecy here — people swear in part because they are constantly exposed to forms of media which inform them that “that’s how people talk”…)
I believe profanity is meaningless in any context. Any message or emotion you could convey with profanity, could be conveyed without it just as well. Profanity does not make jokes funny, despite what lesser-talented comedians think. Profanity does not make dramas ‘grittier’ or more intense–good actors and scripting can sell it regardless of the words they say. I don’t believe States of Grace would have benefited from more profanity, although I’d imagine there will be viewers who disagree…
(Having said that, I’m aware of at least two movies with instances of profanity where, having heard it, I found that I wouldn’t want them to go back and change it after the fact. What makes these examples of profanity seemingly ‘vital’ to a movie and useless virtually all other times? This will likely be a subject of a future article…)
(2) Elder Farrell comments that his dad would rather have him come home in a casket than come home dishonored. While framed in the film as something that’s ‘shocking’ — representing his dad’s seeming greater concern for family honor and community status over the life of his son, the principle behind the statement comes directly from the scriptures:
And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37)
From a gospel perspective, everyone is going to die sooner or later. So, is it better to die young, but clean, or live corrupted with sin…and then just die anyway, later in life?
Of course, we can turn that around just as easily: everyone is a sinner and is dependent upon the Atonement of Jesus Christ for forgiveness. Elder Farrell was already a sinner before he met Holly, and he’s still a sinner after meeting her. If that’s the case, then why sacrifice his life if his sinful condition is only different by a matter of degrees. (How much do “degrees” of sin matter in the end if everyone requires the Atonement to become clean, anyway?)
This is the difficulty of figuring out the proper balance between sin and repentance. Church leaders who teach doctrines such as repentance and the Atonement have the problem of keeping people away from either extreme — requiring pressure (but not TOO much pressure) in two opposite directions.
It is dangerous for persons struggling with sin to believe that there is no hope for them, because through the Atonement any sin can be forgiven and cleansed. And yet, it is also dangerous to rely too heavily on the potential for forgiveness with a casual, shrug-your-shoulders, ‘eh, I can just repent later‘ attitude. Effort spent pushing one group away from one extreme will work directly at pushing the other group towards the other extreme. With such an abstract and nebulous concept as forgiveness through the Atonement can be, it is difficult to find the proper balance between teaching people to stay away from sin, while teaching them that sins can be forgiven at the same time.
Of course, such philosophical debates often present a false choice, as it was for Elder Farrell in the movie, who with a little more caution could have avoided both death and sexual sin fairly easily.
(3) One of the key lines in the film — after Elder Farrell has attempted suicide and is in the hospital — comes from Holly who says, “You don’t have to die for your sins. Someone else already did that for you.” Given the theme of the movie, you can tell that Dutcher (the screenwriter) has been waiting the entire movie for this line.
The problem is: it’s the wrong character saying it. There’s nothing in the film previous to that point with Holly’s character that sets up any particular religious belief or the idea that she has the spiritual background and wisdom to make this profound statement about the Atonement out of the blue. This seems like an obvious case where we’re hearing the screenwriter’s voice instead of the character’s voice, where Dutcher used whatever character happened to be present in the scene.
(4) Louis comments, upon sharing his troubles with wine and women that led to him losing his ministry, that Jesus will forgive seventy times seven, but the people in his hometown will forgive only once. The admonition to forgive others is from a personal perspective, but is arguably different from a professional perspective. There are certain standards of professionalism that come with many occupations, and once compromised, it can make the proper execution of one’s job very difficult. It’s impossible to set a standard of absolute perfection for any Church leader, but at the very least you expect a Church leader to be able to lead. One fall into temptation, after repentance, might make a preacher more effective, with an added level of personal experience…but two or more falls and you’re looking at a continuing series of bad decisions and habits which compromises the ability for people in the congregation to take you seriously as a spiritual leader.
Are we sure that there wouldn’t have been a third time if Louis’s second time was allowed to pass without serious penalty? Perhaps, in the end, he needed the loss of his congregation to seriously reconsider his priorities…and truly repent. When other people depend upon a congregational leader for spiritual guidance and expertise, it is counter-productive not to have someone who is, essentially, a good example — someone other people might want to emulate. Why risk the spiritual growth of everyone else in the congregation by presenting such an obvious stumbling block to them every time they attended church, especially if presumably they could have (and did) find someone else to take the role of preacher who did not have the same tremendous baggage.
Given that Louis ended up homeless in California, however, it seems obvious that Louis was rejected personally by his hometown in addition to professionally, which is another matter entirely. In this context, the implied failure of his friends, family, and neighbors to forgive according to the scriptures is still relevant. But I wouldn’t consider the fact that he was not allowed to continue as minister as a failure of the community to live the law of the gospel.
(Question: if an LDS bishop continued to be called as bishop despite continuing problems with wine and women, would critics of the Church laud them for showing forgiveness until ‘seventy times seven’ as the scriptures say…or would this turn into one more bitter complaint against the Church? Methinks the latter…)
(5) It should be noted that Holly and Elder Farrell have NO romantic chemistry together at all…and I have to think this was deliberate. I’m unclear what Dutcher intended the tone of their relationship to be, but if he meant to portray two people who find each other and fall in love, this marks a failure of the film. The two of them are clearly not “in love” (in fact, the word ‘love’ never comes up in the dialogue between them) and they could be brother and sister for all the ‘heat’ their relationship gives off.
The fact that they end up having sex is irrelevant, because sex frequently has nothing to do with love. (In other news, the sky is blue.) In this case, you seem to have two lonely people who happen to find someone who’s ‘nice’ and provides a warm body to keep them company. Throw in a situation with late night, unsupervised contact together, two emotionally vulnerable psyches, a few indulged impulses and voila! – you have an incident where the Law of Chastity is broken with a partner whom, frankly, neither one of them would ever considering marrying and spending their life with.
Giving Dutcher the benefit of the doubt, I have to believe that this was deliberate. The point was that, given the right circumstances, one can be tempted into breaking a fundamental covenant…not for love, but for nothing. Holly and Elder Farrell are both good people, but their sexual encounter is meaningless and has no positive impact on their relationship.
It’s telling that at the end, their final words to each other amount to “Well, I’ll call you sometime…” and not something along the lines of “I love you and will come back for you as soon as I can, and then we can be together!” as you might expect if they were really in love…and the film meant for us to believe they had a future together.
(6) This thread from ldsfilm.com shows how God’s Army II struggled to get made, as well as some information on its early script. Note the outdated, early poster ad at the top (back when the God’s Army II part of the title was highly emphasized) featuring characters that don’t exist anymore in the finished film.
(7) There’s a line of dialogue when Louis agrees to work at the local church run by an older widow where she says to Louis, “At least you’re Christian…” I was sure this was going to be a lead-in, either immediately or later in the film, where she continues on to say, “…unlike those Mormons!” The setup was certainly there for a “Mormons == Christians (?)” plot point later in the film, but not followed up on. I find it strange that Dutcher himself wouldn’t have thought of that Christian/Mormon context immediately, given that line of dialogue, so I don’t know why in the end it didn’t go anywhere. (Deleted scene?)
(8) States of Grace, to put it mildly, underperformed at the box office, with a domestic gross of about 200k. Actually, given the 800k production budget and the fact that the original film grossed TEN times as much (2.6 million), you might accurately call it a “complete disaster” instead.
Why the disparate results, for a film that is directly comparable in quality to the first? If you ask Dutcher himself, it’s other people’s fault.
From the linked interview with Christianity Today:
Before God’s Army, there hadn’t been many films by and about Mormons; after that, there was a flood of really crappy movies. But I didn’t realize that, because I’d away from the Mormon community for a few years while making other movies. When we came back, we didn’t realize that the reputation for Mormon film had sunk to such a level that by calling a film God’s Army 2, it was almost a bad thing because people thought, Oh no, another Mormon movie, because they’d been burned so many times
Let’s hang on a minute, here… The LDS market has been glutted with a lot of poor films with dumb jokes and recycled plots that largely reject the same spiritual elements Dutcher embraces — no argument there. However, the box office numbers don’t exactly back up Dutcher’s claim.
Church Ball – by anyone’s estimation (including my own) another one of those “crappy” movies — grossed $464k in theaters, and it was released AFTER States of Grace. A later release date with over twice as much box office indicates that there are a fair number of people who didn’t see Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace *because* it was Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace — not because it was “just another crappy Mormon movie”, since they went to see the latter anyway.
Dutcher’s second film Brigham City only grossed $850k in theaters, less than a third of God’s Army and it was released well before the glut of “crappy” movies arrived. At what point do we admit that Dutcher can’t blame the low box office on filmmakers other than himself?
Also from the interview:
Word’s gotten out that my films are a little edgier than the others, and have a little more depth and are actually about something. And I think the Mormon community just doesn’t have reverence or respect for art. It certainly doesn’t understand film as an art form. So there’s a big educational curve that has to take place before the Mormon community will start taking film seriously.
So close to getting it…yet so far. It is true that a lot of people saw God’s Army when it was released, and a lot of those people didn’t like it. While the reasons they found God’s Army “offensive” have varying levels of validity, it should have been obvious that there were a lot of viewers who contributed to God’s Army’s box office that were NOT going to be first in line to buy tickets for the sequel.
“Edginess” is not a good fit in the LDS community, even when Dutcher was still, more or less, a faithful Latter-Day Saint. By the time States of Grace was released and Dutcher was already distancing himself from the Church publicly (as this interview clearly indicates), it should have been obvious that a lot of LDS viewers were not going to buy tickets.
That’s certainly too bad, given that States of Grace is both a good film, and a “faithful” LDS film as well — but none of this required rocket science to figure out, and Dutcher is being disingenuous by thinking his box office is only due to the output of all the other LDS directors.
Do Dutcher’s films “deserve” more box office dollars? In the words of Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven — “‘deserve’ ain’t got nothing to do with it…” Dutcher, like all filmmakers has two options: if making money is the priority, he needs to swallow his pride and artistic vision and make a “crowd-pleaser” that people are going to like. Or he can stay true to his artistic vision, but then accept that box office success may not be forthcoming, given that his vision for film differs from what the average LDS viewer is looking for in a movie.
Dutcher seems to want it both ways — telling the LDS movie-going public that “you’ll take what I give you…and LIKE it”, and then take their rejection of his films personally. Dutcher without question is a talented filmmaker…and has an ego to match. Mormon audiences don’t “have respect or reverence for art” and need to be “educated” how to take film “seriously”. Really? Insulting your audience’s intelligence is one sure way NOT to attract more people to your movies, although it appears that Dutcher’s last bridge with LDS cinema has been set aflame already.
(9) There were quite a few self-serving elements of the Christianity Today interview with Dutcher mentioned above, but this section is the strangest and most non-sensical — discussing the part of the movie where the elders bring the comatose Louis into their apartment.
There’s a scene in States of Grace where the missionaries find a homeless guy passed out on the street. One missionary wants to take him back to their apartment and feed him, but the other says it’s “against the rules.” What rules? Something from the Book of Mormon?
Dutcher: He’s talking about the rules for missionaries.
That you can’t help a homeless person?
Dutcher: That you can’t have anybody in your apartment except other missionaries.
There’s nothing in the Bible that would imply that. Is there something in the Book of Mormon that would support such a rule?
Dutcher: Absolutely not. In fact, it would be quite the opposite. The Book of Mormon is right in line with the Bible as far as that. The idea would be absolutely, be a good Samaritan, take care of him. But if you follow the missionary rules, it often could prevent you from doing acts of Christian service. So it’s one of those ironies.
That is honestly one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard — Dutcher thinks mission rules need a scriptural basis in the Bible or Book of Mormon to exist? And can’t think of ANY reason why a rule restricting apartment visitors might be wise?
So, just to summarize: the director who in his first movie accurately portrayed how elders frequently act immaturely when they are on a mission away from direct adult supervision genuinely doesn’t understand why it might not be a good idea for missionaries to have anybody they want into their apartment at any time? Seriously?
Does Dutcher seriously think that without this rule missionaries world-wide are going to primarily have people in their apartment to “do acts of Christian service” like comfort and shelter comatose homeless people? Rather than “Hey, party at the elders’ place on Friday!”? I suppose then the rule that says missionaries should be in bed by 10:30 is just as non-sensical — after all, we know that without that rule missionaries would be doing all sorts of “Christian service” between 11:00 and midnight every night, right? I think we should be glad Dutcher is not in charge of the Church’s missionary program.