Movies

Movie Review

In ‘War Room,’ message gets lost in pulpit pounding

Karen Abercrombie (left) and Priscilla Shirer in “War Room.”
David Whitlow/AFFIRM Films/Provident Films
Karen Abercrombie (left) and Priscilla Shirer in “War Room.”

Movies aimed at a religious demographic are a substantial enough business that Sony Pictures has an entire division, Affirm Films, dedicated to the genre. Still, you wonder if it’s possible for a couple of Affirm’s go-to filmmakers, brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick (“Courageous”), to craft their well-meaning projects with enough mainstream polish to be broadly accessible.

The first couple of acts of the Kendricks’ latest, “War Room,” are so heavy on broad pulpit pounding that it’s challenging to get swept along by the story’s message. It’s only in the late going that the marital drama turns somewhat more authentic, helping to restore a bit of the audience’s, well, faith.

The movie’s one hint of subtlety comes at the start, with a fleetingly glimpsed Vietnam strategy session. An elderly war widow’s voice-over deconstructs the metaphor: This is about everyday couples making room for prayer in their lives, and for combating the family-torpedoing influence of Satan. Not quite Kubrickian wordplay, maybe, but we’ll take what we can get.

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Bible lecturer Priscilla Shirer plays Elizabeth Jordan, a pleasant, put-together wife and mom whose McMansion home life is secretly a shambles. Her husband, Tony (T.C. Stallings), a hotshot pharmaceutical rep, has control issues and a wandering eye, and neither of them pays enough attention to their young daughter (Alena Pitts). Elizabeth’s realtor job puts her in touch with Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), the sweet old lady from the opener, who’s got more than a home sale to discuss. Clara senses Elizabeth’s hurt and pushes some wisdom on her, urging her to ask for the Lord’s help with Tony and their family.

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We buy this part. It’s narratively sound to have a senior promoting faith to someone from a younger, “crazy busy” generation. What’s distracting is Abercrombie’s hands-raised campiness. Or, more problematically, the suggestion that Elizabeth needs to stay committed and spiritually power through Tony’s psychological abuse. Earnest scenes of her sequestered in prayer in her bedroom closet are meant to be affecting, but more often feel troubling. (There’s no comic relief in recurring references to her closetful of smelly shoes, the telegraphed setup for washing-of-the-feet allegorizing.)

What’s modestly effective is the spiritual detox that Stallings’s jerk undergoes, as epiphanies at home and a meltdown at the office leave him tearfully vowing to be better. He even gamely gets involved with his daughter’s double-dutch competitions. Maybe it’s partly the jump ropes, but that’s uplift that resonates.

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Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.