We finally watched States of Grace (God’s Army II).
SPOILERS. In fact, if you haven’t seen the movie, you won’t understand this review.
A.E. Van Vogt, a pulp writer, tried to have something grab the reader every 800 words. States of Grace is like that. It leaves you reeling.
The movie has realism–one missionary tells another to sing a hymn to get dirty thoughts out of his mind and the other says all that does is give him dirty thoughts in church during the hymns, and the line isn’t for laughs but because that’s what missionaries say. It mixes the realism with with unrealistic symbolism–the missionaries’ apartment is on the beach not because a missionary apartment would be on the beach but because the beach is the World. But somehow the film mostly pulls off the mix and gets down inside you because of it. My wife said she felt like puking at one point and me, I had to get up and walk around and take a few deep breaths. I don’t know how a non-Mormon would have reacted. The effects are almost too fine-tuned. But I am not a non-Mormon.
SPOILERS, final warning.
The end of the movie doesn’t work. Its partly because the symbolism gets too unrealistic–its just too jarring when all the personae collectively kneel and worship in front of a living nativity put on by some Lutherans. But its mostly because the film tries too hard at the end to come up with a sweet ending and ends up betraying its own message. At the end the Elder who slept with the neighbor girl should have got into the mission van and been driven away.
The ending of the movie is this way. Elder Lozano wakes up one night to find his companion Elder Farrell missing. He intuits that Elder Farrell is sleeping with Holly, the girl next door–Elder Farrell has been ministering to this girl and they have grown close emotionally, though nothing obviously wrong has happened between them before. He bangs on her door but there is no response. The next morning, Elder Farrell is hunched over his cereal, miserable. He has slept with Holly and feels like a failure. The mission president is called, Elder Farrell is to be sent home. Holly is sorry she’s got him in trouble. Elder Farrell recalls that his father told him it would be better to die than to return without honor. He tries to kill himself. In the hospital, Holly comes and talks to him about forgiveness. Back at the apartment, he and Holly meet and promise to call each other. Elder Farrell’s mother comes to get him. They go down to the mission van to go to the airport. The other missionaries, the Mission President, and the other important personae are there to see him off. Holly is on her balcony and runs down to him. He sees a living nativity and wanders over to it. Holly joins him (followed by the others); repellently, when Holly joins him what we see is her perky breast entering the frame and squashing up against his arm before the camera pans out to show the rest of them. They pass the infant Jesus around and then in what is meant to be a potent symbol they all fall to their knees together as Elder Ferrell sobs and holds the infant Jesus. The end.
There is a way of portraying conversion and repentance and redemption and keeping the commandments that I’d call ‘happy-face grace.’ You accept Jesus, everything is OK. Happy-face grace can be done right but usually it isn’t. Usually its just schmaltzy. States of Grace, for the bulk of the film, rejects happy-face grace. Elder Lozano has an inspirational story. He was in a gang until he embraced the gospel and turned his life around. But his life went on after that and, as he admits, he’s not been a real good missionary. He gets his chance at redemption but his redemption ends up causing Elder Farrell’s fall, in a way. Holly has repented of her foray into porn but her parents still won’t talk to her. Confessing to Elder Farrell gives her peace but it leads to his fall too. Carl embraces the gospel and turns his gangster life around but he can’t keep his resolve to bury his weapons and a man is killed because of it. He can’t undo his past influence on his younger brother, which leads to the boy’s death. The iconic image of the film is a circle of brethren confirming Carl at the exact same time that a circle of brothas crowd around the body of his brother, whom they have just killed. The truth of the film is that grace is real, not a fairytale.
All this changes with Elder Farrell at the end of the movie. The only apparent effects of his sin are either a result of his own feelings of guilt or else are a result of the mission rules that require he be sent home. His relationship with Holly is not affected. Neither is his relationship with any of the other characters that we meet (there is an ambiguous indication that his relationship with his father might be affected, but the movie implies that this is all on the father). And the end of the movie denies those two apparent effects. He embraces the atonement by embracing the infant Jesus, so no guilt anymore. And the separation the mission rules would impose is symbolically denied when he turns away from the mission van and the other characters all join him in potent unity before the nativity. Every apparent effect of his sin is over. Everything he’s done is magicked away. Even the wounds on his wrists don’t seem to bother him at the end. The grace he receives is happy-face grace.
The apparently lack of consequence of his sins, especially in his relationship with Holly, also cheapens the grace Elder Farrell receives by making his sins look trifling. Indeed, in various ways the movie undercuts the sense that something enormous has happened–something that only the death of a god could fix–when a missionary sleeps with a girl to whom he was ministering and tries to commit suicide rather than face his father’s disapproval. The heavy emphasis on his feeling of guilt makes it seem like the problem is mostly in his mind. He doesn’t feel remorse about what he’s done to Holly in her spiritual journey back. He mainly regrets that he cannot ‘return with honor.’ The movie makes it seem like chastity outside marriage is a mission rule, in effect, and celibacy for two years is just a worthy challenge. It could just as well have been sitting on a pillar for two years, and failure to do just as disappointing. There is never any sense that his attempted suicide is wrong other than that it showed he hadn’t forgiven himself for sleeping with Holly yet.
The ending’s worst fault, though, is the way it mutilates Holly as a character. She has a great scene, a really great scene, where she confesses to Elder Farrell about her porn movies. The way that plays out with her parents–and her admission that Elder Farrell is the first guy she’s met who hasn’t tried to get into her pants–makes her the most interesting character. But her character arc disappears at the end. She becomes a prop in Elder Farrell’s story. Although her arc has been one of realizing that sex is portentous and meaningful and should not be abused, there is no sense that she has done wrong by taking Elder Farrell to bed. She is sorry that he has to leave his mission but that’s it. She doesn’t feel betrayed by him. She doesn’t feel he’s betrayed her. She doesn’t feel she has betrayed herself. Or if she does, we’re never shown any indication because she’s just there to jolly Elder Farrell along. I resented that.
I had thought the way the film handled them sleeping together was good. All we see in the film is a few moments of emotional and spiritual intimacy, a few minor violations of the rules and then, after time has passed offscreen, a companion waking up in the middle of the night to find an empty bed. Clever, I thought. Keeping their entire mutual seduction offscreen makes it seem a lot less implausible, plus we in the audience don’t have to get the creeps as we watch their awkward fumblings and lame attempts to justify what they’re doing. Later I realized that if we had seen more of the seduction, we would have seen how untrue to the characters’ best selves it was, we would have seen how cheap and tawdry and mutually betraying it was, and it would have been much harder to accept the ending where the sex doesn’t affect their relationship and everyone is happy and united. It wasn’t clever. It was dishonest.
If anyone asks me, I’ll tell them to watch the movie. If they ask me if I’m glad I saw it, I’ll tell them yes, no question. But I won’t watch it again, not until someone release a new cut where the movie ends with Elder Farrell getting in the van and driving away to get his life back in order. I want hope to be the final state of grace.
Update: I didn’t watch the movie with a review in mind and I haven’t rewatched any of it. This review is more brooding on my impressions than it is a scrupulous attempt to weigh the film in the balance.