States of Grace review (spoilers).

February 27, 2008 | 69 comments

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.

P.S.: Part II, Part III.

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69 Responses to States of Grace review (spoilers).

  1. Tatiana on February 27, 2008 at 7:40 am

    Adam, I felt the same thing, that Holly was betrayed by the story. I felt that she was treated as a non-person in the end, despite her undeniable humanity in her one great scene. Actually the women in the movie (and even moreso in God’s Army) were treated as props throughout, from the first few scenes of sister-cheerleaders (with a token skillful player), to beautiful-girls-in-bikinis, through the film’s complete lack of understanding that a great wrong had been done to Holly by Elder Farrell. Everyone treated Holly as though she were the evil temptress, essentially. Everyone treated her as a porn-actress rather than as a beloved daughter of God. I was ashamed of the movie for that, and of LDS culture which does seem to encourage, or rather hold on to, our larger culture’s gradually improving but still two-dimensional view of females. Maybe this view of women is part of what the film intended to depict about LDS culture, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like a straight revelation of the filmmaker’s worldview.

    Like most independent low budget movies, it had flaws. That’s part of their charm, I think. I attribute the problem with depicting women to the personal limitations of the filmmaker. The movie is as much a story of the development of one person, Richard Dutcher, as it is about any of its characters. As you observed, the movie had many other powerful moments and much that was beautiful and good. I’m profoundly grateful to Dutcher for depicting the things he shows, which no other filmmaker seems even to attempt. I do think he’s a genius. I liked this movie a lot, bought a copy of it, and have already watched it twice. Despite the problems, I think it’s a great film and highly recommend it.

  2. Peter LLC on February 27, 2008 at 7:54 am

    He mainly regrets that he cannot ‘return with honor.’

    Sounds about right to me–even missionaries suffer from a myopic understanding of the gospel that leads them to look out for Number One first. Surely this is a character flaw, but I don’t know that it undermines the movie, unless we expect that someone with such a superficial understanding of grace as Elder Farrell will be transformed overnight by two serious, back to back sins into a regular Alma the Younger.

  3. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 27, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Great points, Adam. I thought the film was very well done, except for the ending.

  4. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Peter LLC,
    All of the other characters have or have had their myopia removed. There is no hint in the movie that Elder Farrell has to reach a greater understanding of his sin before he can really repent. Pretty much the opposite. I have to think the myopia is the movie’s, not Elder Farrell’s. A God’s Army III where ex-Elder Farrell realizes he has a lot more learning and repenting to do would be interesting. But its not States of Grace (God’s Army II) and nothing like it is hinted at. I think my pet ending would hint at it.

  5. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Everyone treated Holly as though she were the evil temptress, essentially. Everyone treated her as a porn-actress rather than as a beloved daughter of God. I

    In a way, I disagree. If she had been treated as an evil temptress, that would have recognized her as a person and a moral agent. But although there are a few half-hearted attempt to keep her away from Elder Farrell, they just vanish without any explanation. She’s neither evil temptress nor daughter of God. She’s a prop.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on February 27, 2008 at 11:42 am

    An excellent, thoughtful, informative review, Adam; thanks.

  7. Ray on February 27, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    #6 – Amen.

  8. Wilfried on February 27, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    I have great respect for what Dutcher tried to do, and I think God’s Army I and especially Brigham City were remarkable movies, very promising for further developments. I found States of Grace disappointing. Perhaps Dutcher tried to do too much too quickly, tackling complexities without sufficient subtletly, leaving little room for interpretation, trying to force tears at the end. I think the ending ruined the film for some viewers. But the saddest part is that we lost Dutcher. I wish him well in future endeavors.

  9. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    #8, Amen to all that.

  10. Eugene V. Debs on February 27, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Although I broadly agree with your review, Adam, I have to say that you didn’t hit Dutcher hard enough. The ending is false because once you introduce a character who is a porn star, subtlety goes out the window. We’re in bad horror movie territory here: Silly teenagers saying “should we really go in that dark house where the satanic cult murdered that family?” becomes a silly Elder saying “should I really spend time alone with someone a) that I’m obviously attracted to and b) has acted in pornographic movies?”

  11. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Eric Russell,
    I think the ending is less ambiguous than you say because everything we see in the film as the consequence of his sin is symbolically erased at the end.

    Eugene V. Debs
    She’s not really a porn star. She dabbled in it and it was a horrifying wake up call for her. I thought her character arc was handled really well right up to the end, but that’s me. I do think you’re right that you can’t have a story line that looks a lot like ‘missionary sleeps with porn star!’ and then brush it off.

  12. Geoff B on February 27, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Wow, great comments, I find myself nodding in agreement with every comment, but especially Wilfried’s in #8. I miss Dutcher films that I could watch with my 12-year-old daughter. I may be a minority in the world of film right now, but I still believe you can delve into serious, adult subjects, even such subjects as adultery, gangs and murder, without the unnecessary gore and ugliness you see in movies these days. Good filmmakers did this for decades until the 1960s.

  13. gej on February 27, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    #10 When I saw the movie I didn’t interpret the ending to mean he was purged of his sin but that he was coming to a clearer realization of his sinful state and the ultimate reliance on Christ to overcome. The ambiguity to me is good and I think intended by Dutcher. The film essentially has a different ending for every viewer based on your life experience, view of the atonement etc etc.

    For me the inevitable walk to the mission van, flight home with Mom, reuniting with Father (jerk-sorry for the editorial here), weren’t as important as his evolving relationship with Christ and his anticipated personal application of the atonement.

  14. Chris Bigelow on February 27, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    The way I see it, the “happy-face grace” you describe is more like the terrestrial-level Christianity that Dutcher was raised with than Mormonism’s full celestial-level understanding.

    I would love to learn more sometime about how/why Dutcher reverted to what I think of as “mere Christianity.” What was it about Mormonism that he disconnected with?

    For me, it would be like going back to a typewriter after having become accustomed to a computer, but whatever…

  15. Eric Russell on February 27, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Adam G., your feelings are shared by many–the seemingly easy grace received by Elder Farrell at the film’s end is the single greatest complaint among members of the church about the film.

    I’m very much sympathetic to the concern, but I just want to point out that the ending can be read in other ways. It easily could be the case that at the moment Elder Farrell holds the baby Jesus he begins to see things clearly for the first time. It is at this point that he realizes how genuinely wrong-minded his suicide attempt was and realizes that he can indeed make amends in a different path. Thus, it represents not the completion of grace, but a recognition of the possibility of grace if he acts accordingly.

    Of course, the ending is ambiguous enough that no particular reading is certain here, and I do think it ought to have been made clearer somehow; but given that the film is moving into symbolic mode at its end, I can easily see how Dutcher would have felt that pausing to make clarifications would have been distracting to the tone of the finale.

  16. austin s on February 27, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I also didn’t really like the ending, but only in degree. I thought it was pretty unrealistic and sugary (“its just too jarring when all the personae collectively kneel and worship in front of a living nativity”), but I–like #10 and 14–interpreted the ending to be a turning point, not an end point, in Elder Farrell’s journey through repentance for his horrible sin. I thought his tears were half tears of joy for knowing about the atonement and grace, and half tears of sorrow (hopefully of the godly variety) for his sin. I don’t see all the effects of his sin being erased by that. He still goes home, he still has to live with what he did and try to come to terms with it, and he still has guilt I’m sure. The end of the movie is hopeful, but it is not the end of Elder Farell’s path back to God.

    That being said, I do like what you said about Holly’s character, I hadn’t really considered how the ending affects her.

  17. Sara Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Excellent review, Adam. I want to know what Wilfried meant by:
    “But the saddest part is that we lost Dutcher. I wish him well in future endeavors.”

  18. Wilfried on February 27, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    You can read that here, Sara.

  19. Snow White on February 27, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    I agree with the turning point interpretation, but I also admit that the ending is ambiguous and subjective. I had a hard time with the violence. I thought, in particular, the gunfight at the beginning was really jarring. Especially since my mom brought it over to watch on a Sunday (oops! not sabbath material at all!). I was glad to see Elder Farell’s story line, though, because I’ve rarely seen that particular scenario dealt with. I was sort of thrown off by the sappy ending, though, even though I “got it”. I would have liked to see more of the social and emotional ramifications of his sins. In fact, when I thought he had committed suicide, I was thinking “Oh no! They’re giving him an easy out!” But it turned out to be not quite as bad as I thought.

  20. bbell on February 27, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    I to agree with Wilfried. Often we are to hard on those that leave the church. I hope he works out his struggles with his faith and returns.

  21. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    Gentlemen, I’d prefer to not get to much into the current state and future vector of Mr. Dutcher’s soul. I thank you.

  22. Ray on February 27, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    #20 – Amen – or even simply that he works out his struggles with his faith.

  23. Susan M on February 27, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    It’s been a long time since I saw it. I don’t really remember too much about what I thought of it. Except that I was rather disappointed in some of it and my husband really liked it.

  24. Jack on February 27, 2008 at 8:33 pm


    That’s a very thoughtful review. I think Dutcher would appreciate how you were able to get inside of his work and tackle its pros and cons (as you see them) with such poignant sincerity.

    For my own part, the ending is the inevitable conclusion of a movie that tries too hard to juxtapose those elements necessary to establish the irony of divine grace. Even Holly’s monologue (which has been praised by some) is IMO more construct than character; a device used to arouse empathy–which is problematic when one considers that the audience is placed in the driver’s seat with regard to the bestowal of grace. At first glance one would think that such empathy would impel a productive character identification. But, in the end, what we really have is a moral disconnect between audience and character–that is, the character merits grace because of our unchosen empathetic feelings for her regardless of her questionable morality. That IMO steals the thunder from God. It reduces his magnificent gift of grace to far less than what it ought to be as the need for such a seemingly impossible “bridging” has already been forced upon the audience.

  25. Adam Greenwood on February 27, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    if I may restate your point, you’re saying that the film trivializes grace by making it what happens to people we sympathize with?

  26. jose on February 27, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    I appreciate your review, Adam. You saw a different dimension that I hadn’t considered. However, I viewed the ending more as a “turning point” described above. In some ways, I think the title should have been “Redemption”, but “States of Grace” still works better–this is most evident at the end. All the main characters are in different states of grace: Elder Lozano has already received his grace, the bum/preacher receives his (again), the gangster receives his, and the Elder Farrell (the seemingly most spiritually-developed character) begins his road to grace.

  27. Jack on February 27, 2008 at 9:23 pm


    Yes, in part. The other part is that grace is trivialized by the artistic form in how it engages the viewer. The presence of Deity as a viable force in the narrative is lessened by placing the audience in the position of wrestling away their intuitive objections to a character’s behavior because of the imposition of a contrived sentiment–rather than wrestling with the bestowal of God’s grace upon said character in spite of (what ought to be) our intuitive disapproval of his/her behavior.

  28. Jack on February 27, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    I should add that the most profound moment in the story is when Carl throws his weapons into the surf. We have a sense of profound purification in his character; it is the pinnacle of the story–and we have a certainty that this man has received of God’s grace because we have sensed the effects of such in Carl. Thus we, as an audience, are left to our own devices to react how we may to the miracle we see before us in Carl’s behavior. The grace is encarnate.

    That said, I would love to have seen Dutcher stick to the Lozano-Carl narrative. Perhaps they might have been gang-rivals in the past–and that past catches up with Lozano while on his mission. It think it would have been much more riveting to see God’s grace manifest in the narrative climax through the mutual forgiveness of Carl and Elder Lozano–a simile (as well as real-world effect) of our reconciliation with God through grace.

  29. Costanza on February 27, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    “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.” Best movie review line ever.

  30. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 27, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    I thought the notion that the missionary who commits fornication would then try to commit suicide (in such an incompetent way) was irrational. If you feel really guilty about violating a commandment, how is that solved by violating another commandment? Suicide to someone who believes in the Spirit World as LDS do, and as a missionary should do, means an even greater rejection of God’s commandments than sexual sin, and almost a loss of opportunity for any kind of repentance. Maybe if he did something like that when egged on in a direct confrontation by his idiot father, when he was not being rational, but I have a hard time accepting that he had such a strong Bad Dad in his head that he would basically execute his father’s condemnation all on his own. Furthermore, it depicts him as totally impervious to the lessons of repentance and forgiveness that have been going on all around him for our benefit. Any missionary out in the real world has dealt with investigators who were involved in sexual sin, who needed a lesson in repentance. He knows what the proper road to repentance is. So the whole thing just destroyed my ability to believe in the reality of the story.

    Having had an experience acting in pornography is not the same thing as committing fornication in what you think is an affectionate relationship. It seems more credible to me if Holly had become involved intimately with someone who provided her support, and she only gradually comes to the realization that she has become a kind of prostitute. Her segueing into a sexual advance on the missionary, the only way she knows how to show gratitude, would be an extension of that behavior.

    And I kept waiting for Lozano to explain to her how what she thought was affection had destroyed the missionary’s life, that the only way the missionary could repent was to back away from her and not fondle their relationship. He needed to give some tough talk about repentance to her and to his companion. To not let her give keepsakes and momentos to the missionary. She has proven to be well-meaning poison. There needs to be an adult on stage, such as the mission president, who moves the missionaries out of the apartment and away from Holly. Lozano needs to be more guilt ridden than he is. A little more angry at himself.

    Lack of repentance, of change, of turning around, just leads to more and more tragedy–adultery, death, and guilt. If he hasn’t learned that, then his mission really was a waste. When Jesus saved the life of the woman caught in adultery, he also told her to sin no more. But I don’t see Christ’s standard here. The ending seems to tell the two fornicators that they can be forgiven without repenting, that the stupid attempt to commit suicide somehow wipes out the sexual transgression for both of them.

    The missionary could be overwhelmingly affected by the horror of his sin without the suicide attempt to show how much he was hurting, and it would be a display of conscience that would be more significant to a non-LDS audience than cutting his wrists. If Dutcher had to show the missionary being physically hurt, how about he just walks out into traffic because he is so preoccupied by his guilt? Or maybe loses his balance, feels vertigo, out on the balcony and falls, ambiguously, not clear whether it’s a suicide attempt or an accident caused by his inner conflicts, his subconscious desire to be punished. He doesn’t consciously know which.

    I’m not sure what Dutcher is trying to say with this part of the story. It seems confused, morally.

  31. Adam Greenwood on February 28, 2008 at 9:40 am


    I see your point (I think) and its a good one. But movies need to get us to empathize with the characters if we’re to really experience what they experience along with them. I don’t see any way around it. And grace comes to the repentant, which naturally is going to get our sympathy–and repentance usually comes to those who are suffering, which also gets our sympathy.

    I appreciate your comment because it made me reflect on how much the film kept the sin off-screen or in the backstory. I think that’s a respectable editorial choice, but it does point to how challenging the atonement can be. We have to ease up to the reality of it by baby steps sometimes. Also, you and Mr. Swenson have helped me see the problem with the suicide attempt. Its handled to make you feel sorry for the missionary, and more willing to overlook what he’s just done.

  32. Blake on February 28, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Good comments Adam and Swenson. It seems to me fairly transparent that Dutcher wanted to bring out the evil in the attitude of : “I’d rather have you return in a box than in having fornicated.” That is indeed a pernicious view that also fails to recognize the possibility of repentance and change. However, it seems to me that Dutcher just compounds the problems by making it OK to engage in fornication as a missionary because the attitude which he is rejecting is not compassionate. It is like this bad attitude requires rejecting the possibility that what the missionary did has moral implications. So Dutcher’s moral solution is to eviscerate the accountability of the missionary and the contrition of the past-porn-actress. Just as Swenson said, there has to be an adult on stage somewhere. We are robbed of the real play of the important moral issue and the reality of atonement and repentance. Instead, we get an equally morally confused response.

  33. Adam Greenwood on February 28, 2008 at 9:59 am

    that’s a great comment. As I told Jack, this is right on:

    The ending seems to tell the two fornicators that they can be forgiven without repenting, that the stupid attempt to commit suicide somehow wipes out the sexual transgression for both of them.

    And here you go right to heart of the problems with the ending:

    And I kept waiting for Lozano to explain to her how what she thought was affection had destroyed the missionary’s life, that the only way the missionary could repent was to back away from her and not fondle their relationship. He needed to give some tough talk about repentance to her and to his companion. To not let her give keepsakes and momentos to the missionary. She has proven to be well-meaning poison. There needs to be an adult on stage, such as the mission president, who moves the missionaries out of the apartment and away from Holly. Lozano needs to be more guilt ridden than he is. A little more angry at himself.

    Exactly. If everyone only halfheartedly treats a sin as sin, then the film’s message, whether intended or not, is that its not really sin and atonement isn’t really needed. Whether Dutcher didn’t want to turn off gentile audiences who don’t see much wrong with fornication, whether he really didn’t see fornication as sin, or whether he didn’t want the other characters to come across as “judgmental,” I don’t know. But he did undercut his own message about grace. No sin, no grace.

  34. JDH on February 28, 2008 at 3:42 pm


    Would it have made any difference in your reaction to the ending if Dutcher had added a shot of Elder Farrell passing the baby Jesus to Holly (symbolic of passing grace to her, recognizing her ability to repent and become clean through the Atonement) and then turning and walking towards the mission van to await his fate? It seems that this would have acknowledged Farrell\’s acceptance of the Atonement and the need for him to literally get back on the path to full repentance. (He could have also closed out the Holly arc by a simple shot of her holding the baby, using her facial emotions to show how the Atonement affects her, as well.)

    I agree that the \”happy-face grace\” is wrong thinking. As the bishop of a young man who came home early under similar circumstances to Elder Farrell (fortunately without Farrell\’s father issues), it was an almost too-difficult hurdle just getting him to recognize the power of the Atonement — to have a Farrell-type experience as the catalyst for his path toward redemption. Too many members want to have repentance be an event, not a process, and I think Dutcher, unfortunately, reinforced that attitude.

  35. Stephen on February 28, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Adam, it looks to me like the ending did its job, which is to leave you with an impression.

  36. Adam Greenwood on February 28, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    That’s a left-handed compliment.

  37. Ben H on February 28, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    I don’t think Dutcher was giving us happy-face grace. Isn’t it paradoxical that we are supposed to believe in grace amid all this oh-so-human error and sin? Somehow we are supposed to believe that grace is taking effect in the lives of these people, even with all the heart-wrenching problems. I don’t know how to portray that except eschatologically, and that is what I thought Dutcher was doing in that final scene. It becomes a pageant. It is not a simple portrayal of real life. The live nativity is a pageant, and Elder Farrell and his family and Holly and everyone steps into the pageant. Dutcher isn’t pretending to say what happens next. He is saying that somehow this is all encompassed in God’s paradoxical plan of happiness, and giving us a glimpse of the eschaton.

  38. Matt Evans on February 28, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Comment moved to new thread.

  39. Z. Madden on February 28, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    I’m having a hard time understanding why everyone is treating Dutcher like a true artist. He’s a hack, and his movies are drivel. Personally, I’m glad he’s left Mormon filmmaking, and I’m sure the Brethren are as well.

  40. Jack on February 28, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    Well, *I hope* that sheds a little more light…

  41. Snow White on February 28, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    I think so…good points, all.

  42. Jack on February 28, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Ben H. (and Adam),

    I think you may be right that an eschatological approach in the form may be the best way to handle the subject of grace. But the problem is (and it’s a good problem) it heightens the problem of God in the machine. You have to deal with the presence of God in the narrative–and I mean in a way that makes structural sense in the story. What we have in SoG is a bunch of people with their own peculiar problems–rather soap operatic (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing)–getting knocked around in a context wherein God is never really acknowledged as a real player. And so, with the possible exception of Carl’s character purification, we never really get our bearings with respect to what these folks are really experiencing as it relates to grace.

    Now I think Dutcher tried to intuit God through the philosophies/behaviors of some of his characters, but he falls short by relying (as I said before) to heavily on the viewer’s sense of empathy. And this, Adam, is where I come to your thoughts about empathizing with the characters. You are right that we will usually find ourselves empathizing with a great character–and that’s what’s so terrifying (and wonderful) about something like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We track his descent into evil, and we get it! However, the difference here is that we *don’t* give Macbeth a pass because we feel sorry for him–which may be viewed as a question of sympathy rather than empathy, though, in the final analysis, it really boils down to empathy as the viewer is placed in the position of wrestling with the morality of Macbeth’s behavior.

    (Deep breath)

    Well that sheds a little more light on what I said above: “The presence of Deity as a viable force in the narrative is lessened by placing the audience in the position of wrestling away their intuitive objections to a character’s behavior because of the imposition of a contrived sentiment–rather than wrestling with the bestowal of God’s grace upon said character in spite of (what ought to be) our intuitive disapproval of his/her behavior.”

  43. Ray on February 28, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    #39 – I seriously doubt that “the Brethren” are “glad” Dutcher left Mormon film making, since he left the Church to do it.

    I would have LOVED to see him continue his artistry from within the Church after seeing God’s Army and Brigham City. There was real and profound potential there – and he didn’t shy away from tackling controversial issues in a very nuanced way.

  44. Adam Greenwood on February 28, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    Comment moved to new thread.

  45. Adam Greenwood on February 28, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Jack, to be honest, I don’t know what you’re saying.

  46. Adam Greenwood on February 28, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    Would it have made any difference in your reaction to the ending if Dutcher had added a shot of Elder Farrell passing the baby Jesus to Holly (symbolic of passing grace to her, recognizing her ability to repent and become clean through the Atonement) and then turning and walking towards the mission van to await his fate?

    He had passed grace to her earlier when he had heard her confession and squeezed her hand. At the end of the movie, he is no longer in a position to do so. I would not have liked him to try.

  47. Ray on February 28, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Comment moved to new thread

  48. Jack on February 28, 2008 at 11:33 pm


    Sorry, I’m not the greatest communicator. My contention has more to do with the artistic construct (the “how”) than with what Dutcher is trying to say. I think he fails to say what he wants to say because of weakness in the form–though there are some genuinely good moments.

  49. Jack on February 29, 2008 at 12:09 am to [accept] Farrell’s temptations as real…

  50. Jack on February 29, 2008 at 12:08 am

    Well maybe what we’re talking about here might serve as an example–

    “Everything about the film said that real charity and real compassion also opened up opportunities for real temptations.”

    Yes, this is what the film wants to say, but then it undercuts itself by forcing the audience to identify with Lozano as the one who is “truly” charitable. (I’m sorry, but you can’t get around Lozano’s overtly archetypal behavior) Farrell is flattened as a character–it’s really no surprise that he falls. We, therefore, fail to except Farrell’s temptations as “real” because we don’t view Farrell (or Lozano, for that matter) as real–or real enough. And so, instead of empathizing with well-nuanced characters who behave rationally in a viable context, what we have is a sense of empathy forced upon us primarily because of the character’s sob-stories–not because of what they do (except for Carl to some degree).

    Ah, I’m probably just making things murkier.

  51. DW on February 29, 2008 at 2:28 am


    I very much disagree with your assessment of this movie, which I consider to be the most real and powerful LDS-themed movies I have seen.

    I think you’re projecting an interesting opinion when you say that the ending cheapens grace. And from some of the comments here, it’s no wonder that other Christians think we don’t believe in the grace of Jesus Christ.

    In fact, I wonder how much you’re simply projecting your own reactions to what you conceive to be “easy grace” in your assessment of the ending. (In fact, I think this is part of the beauty of Dutcher’s movies — the ending is so ambiguous that it is up to the reader to project their own experience.) We don’t need to see Elder Farrell walk to the mission van to get on with his life — we know that is ahead of him. We don’t need Dutcher to somehow make it unambiguously clear to us that Farrell has a hard road ahead of him. The whole point of the film is human experience, not a doctrinal treatise.

    For me, the end scene is a beautiful one that simply signifies that God’s grace is tremendous for all of us, even Elder Farrell. In that scene, I see a broken man who is not even close to living a flourishing life — nowhere close! Nor does he fully appreciate the severity of what he has done — he who is without sin among us in this area can be free to cast the first stone at him for this. But regardless of all this, the Savior is there for him. He is there the very moment Elder Farrell turns to him. And that’s the meaning that I project onto this ambiguous canvas that Dutcher paints for us — the very moment we turn to Christ, we have access to his grace. What Dutcher is doing, I think, is capturing THAT MOMENT! If Farrell then walks off to the van after this to face his arduous life, then the moment that I think Dutcher wants to capture is lessened — the film would turn into a seminary video on the steps of repentance. No, repentance is not simply an event, but that does not mean that there are not significant events in a person’s journey back to Christ. Have we not all had moments when we have felt an outpouring of the Savior’s love, even when we knew we didn’t deserve it, even just after we have been in the midst of sin? Moreover, is it possible that we often are distant from the Lord’s grace simply because we see ourselves as unworthy, and we think we have to go through a series of mechanical steps before we can meaningfully commune with God?

    For me, this ending helped me to “remember what the Lord has done for me, yea, even that he hath heard my prayer; yea, then do I remember his merciful arm which he extended towards me” (Alma 29:10).

  52. Matt Evans on February 29, 2008 at 3:57 am

    Comment moved to a new thread.

  53. Matt Evans on February 29, 2008 at 4:08 am

    DW, the ending was so preposterous that I couldn’t feel anything but giggles. His mission president and mom have come to take him home and the devastated missionary is palling around in their presence with the girl he’s known a week? A group of Mormons bowing at a nativity? Ending the movie with an alien abduction would have been more realistic. Good movie for the first 90%. (God’s Army would have been much better without it’s last minute “miracle healing” silliness, too.)

  54. tyler on February 29, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Great review, Adam. I was not inclined to agree with you based on what I perceived to be your essay’s trajectory, but I was mostly convinced by the end.

    I have mixed feelings about Dutcher. Like some other commenters, I was greatly impressed by his early films, especially Brigham City. I think, though, that his ability to comment on the Mormon worldview began to lessen because he began to view Mormonism condesecndingly. There are a number of points in States of Grace where, it seems to me, he is trying to portray the provinciality of the “conventional” Mormon worldview.

    In my mind, his portrayal of grace at the movie’s conclusion is a similar attempt: repentance, he is trying to say, has nothing to do with the “five Rs” or whatever similar checklist we may have learned in Sunday school, but only with Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. He is trying to compensate for what he views as a wrongheaded Mormon view. In a sense, I think, he is right.

    Elder Hafen talks about how, twenty or so years ago, a Newseek reporter wrote that Mormon don’t believe in the necessity of Grace. When Elder Hafen protested with quotes from the scriptures and the brethren, the Newsweek writer said, in effect, “no, you don’t understand, I wasn’t reporting on the doctrine, just on what people believe–whatever your church teaches, your people believe Christ’s sacrifice was compassionate but not neccesary for salvation.” I think Dutcher is reacting to that perception (which, by the way, I largely no longer believe to be true).

    The irony is that, in reacting against what Dutcher believes to be a deficiency in most Mormons’ understanding of grace, he ends up, as you point out, over-simplifying the story. I agree with some commenters that the ending may be meant to portray a turnning point more than the conclusion, but it is hard to deny that Dutcher seems to want to glance past whatever consequences the fornication may have on the missionary, his family, and Holly. Part of the power of understanding the miracle of grace, after all, is understanding the anguish it must overcome–the reason Holly’s character is powerful (at least at first) is we understand how much she has suffered, and so, for her, grace would be a powerful anondyne. One perceives, however, as you point out, Adam, that for the dismissed Elder, there are no serious consequences to be gotten over anyway, just the provincial thinking of a people who would tell a missionary “better dead than dishonored.”

  55. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Tyler, I really appreciate your comment. You and some of the other commenters have understood what I meant better than I said it.

  56. Tatiana on February 29, 2008 at 10:29 am

    The main thing that annoys the heck out of me about all LDS art that I’ve seen (and I admit that hasn’t been a whole lot) is that it’s so heavily didactic. I suppose this is a cultural bias since we’re so used to teaching and being taught. But seriously, it really destroys the beauty of art to make it so explicitly about teaching us some kind of neat moral lesson. Compare C.S. Lewis’ fiction to Tolkien’s, for instance. The former always has an allegorical meaning, we’re always being led around by the nose, essentially. The latter depicts a real world, a true story, in a literary sense, with full complexity and varied applicability to life which is up to the reader to find and decide. In the former the reader is not made a full partner in the process. In a subtle way the reader is being patronized.

    We don’t tend to notice this or object to it in LDS art, I think, because we are accustomed to constantly submit ourselves and each other to moral instruction as part of our spiritual development. But the best art doesn’t do that. I’ll be glad when LDS art outgrows this didactic phase.

  57. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 9:36 am

    DW, the ending was so preposterous that I couldn’t feel anything but giggles.

    Yeah. I had complained about how indifferent everyone is to Holly and Elder Farrell hanging out from a thematic standpoint, but its also unrealistic. I think its meant to by symbolic like some of the other unrealistic stuff in the movie but its too absurd.

  58. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 10:49 am

    All, I’m breaking out a couple of different discussions here into new threads:

  59. East Coast on February 29, 2008 at 10:51 am

    Comment moved to new thread.

  60. Brad Kramer on February 29, 2008 at 10:57 am

    I’m inclined to agree with Adam’s analysis to the extent that we assume that fornication, in fact, took place. But Dutcher bends over backward to evasively complicate that question. It’s easy to assume that it was fornication, because he implicitly spoon feeds that to an audience that was conditioned to expect it. But sexual impropriety is never directly confirmed.

    The point is not that he is performing some masterful directorial sleight of hand and that there was no fornication; the point is that we don’t actually know what happened–he never tells us–that it doesn’t really matter, and that our presumption of fornication is based in large part on the young woman’s past and our quiet judgment of her and not on the actual evidence presented. The evidence given in the narrative itself could just as easily point to a past transgression that he should have cleared up before serving, or to a non sexual sin that she simply convinced him he should confess and accept the consequences for. Dutcher’s point is not (I think) that lackluster performance of mundane duties leads to fornication or other serious sins but that when we obsess over identifying and labeling the sinful act itself we miss out on the depth of Christ’s healing power.

    When the (alleged) adulteress was brought before the Savior, the evidentiary case against her was tenuous at best. Jesus did not even deal with the question of whether or not she had actually committed the sin in question because his power to heal (and to shame those who sought to use her alleged sinfulness as a pretext for punishing her publicly in the most self-righteous, self-congratulatory manner imaginable) extended infinitely beyond the limitations presumed by a fixation on the nature, extent, and details of her supposed crime.

    That said, I definitely agree that the directing in the final act was saccharine and rather ham-fisted–an entire group of adults spontaneously caught up in the collective effervescence of worshiping Ricky Bobby’s baby Jesus.

  61. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 11:31 am

    I’m not close to being persuaded, Brad K. You really have to be whistling in the dark to make the narrative “just as easily point to a past transgression that he should have cleared up before serving, or to a non sexual sin that she simply convinced him he should confess and accept the consequences for.”

    Anyway, I think your approach weakens the atonement rather than strengthens it. When we brush off sin as irrelevant, we diminish the atonement.

  62. Matt Evans on February 29, 2008 at 11:37 am

    I knew that States of Grace bombed at the box office, but didn’t realize how badly. According to, States of Grace cost $800k to produce (marketing extra) and only grossed $59k.

  63. Brad Kramer on February 29, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I worded it poorly. Obviously the narrative points in a certain direction — as he practically spoon feeds fornication to an expecting audience. But he’s also deliberately evasive. My reading of what Dutcher tried to do does not brush off sin as irrelevant, but shifts the focus away from identifying and labeling the precise nature, details, and extent of the sinful act to the real power available in Christ for overcoming its effects, whatever they are. Dutcher had way too many opportunities to confirm sexual transgression for his unwillingness to do so not to mean something. Matt sees Dutcher vindicating pharisaic CES-types, where I suspect that he was relying upon the presumptuous, rush-to-judgment paradigm they embody and the audience’s awareness of Holly’s past sins to make a statement about how our obsession with diagnosing the clinical details of sinful acts is an obstacle to Atonement.

  64. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 11:51 am

    He does practically spoon feeds fornication to the audience which undercuts the rest of your point, in my opinion. Anyway, I have no idea why being particular about sin would be an obstacle to the Atonement. The more sin is an abstract category instead of a visceral wrong done at this place and this hour, the less visceral and meaningful the atonement is.

    It isn’t a question of playing some post-modern trick on the audience. Dutcher has his faults but he’s not that bad–if his message were that we assume sin where it isn’t, we’d see it somewhere in the movie, it would be confirmed somewhere at the end, and the film wouldn’t be titled States of Grace. I think the real reasons why we aren’t sledgehammered with the fornication are delicacy for the audience’s sensibility, the difficulty of making the mutual seduction plausible if shown on-screen, and the fact that making the sin more real to the audience exposes how absurd the ending is.

  65. Brad Kramer on February 29, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    I’m not endorsing what I see to be Dutcher’s view of Atonement and Grace. I’m just not convinced that there wasn’t something more at work in terms of how he says what he’s trying to say — his deliberate unwillingness to make clear what happened — than wanting to avoid traumatizing the delicacy of the audience’s moral and aesthetic sensibilities. He forces the audience to make assumptions and those assumptions are likely to be rooted in our rush to judgment based upon Holly’s past and the ingrainedness of MTC phariseeism. Like you, I disagree with Matt that Dutcher is attempting to vindicate such attitudes — the tremendous good that comes from some rule-breaking militates against such a view; we just disagree about what lies behind the narrative evasiveness re: what happened in Holly’s apartment.

  66. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    I guess I don’t see any deliberate unwillingness or real evasiveness. What happened is pretty clear in broad outlines, imho. I suppose we’ll have to disagree about that.

  67. Snow White on February 29, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    I would think if Farell was upset about something else, that he would have been quick to point out that he wasn’t involved in any fornication with her, at least so she wouldn’t have been treated like scum by all the mishy people when they obviously assumed it happened. I can’t think of any purpose relevant to the film where such a subterfuge perpetrated on the audience would be valuable.

  68. Jonovitch on March 1, 2008 at 4:03 am

    Adam, that was a very good analysis of the movie. I’ve been meaning to see it for some time, and when I saw your “spoilers!” warning I broke down and rented it from the local Hollywood.

    The ending moved me to (almost) tears tonight, and any movie that can accomplish that (it’s a short list) is worth watching in my opinion. I thought the symbolic grace that passed to each of the characters lives in front of the nativity was beautiful. That said, it made me very uncomfortable to see Holly squishing up close to Elder Ferrell (doesn’t he remind anyone else of Will Ferrell?) and nestling her head on his shoulder and to not have the mission president or his mom (hello?!) intervene. (I swear it looked like they were already officially boyfriend/girlfriend. “Call me, mkay?” Gag.) I think even “untrained” non-Mormon viewers would feel uncomfortable with the inconsistency.

    Here’s my final scene: The mission president and other Elders are waiting by the van. As Elder Ferrell and his mom come down the apartment steps and out the door, they hear the music from the nativity and gravitate naturally to take a look. (And remove the “Lutheran” sign — I felt like that was going out of the way to prove some unnecessary ecumenical point. “Do Lutherans know more about grace than Mormons?” It was distracting to me.) The others by the van notice this and naturally wander over, too, to see what they see. (Having everyone meet at the van, and then only Elder Ferrell walking over, and then Holly, and then everyone else, it was WAY too forced.)

    The main characters pass the baby from one person to the next (keeping the powerful symbol of God’s grace touching their lives) — Holly is still watching from her balcony in tears. After they’ve all held the baby, the mission president taps the elders on their shoulder to signal “it’s time to go” and they slowly break off, but Elder Ferrell hangs on to the baby a bit longer, now weeping and kneeling down. Seeing this, Holly then rushes downstairs and as she arrives and kneels next to him. He hands the baby off to her, looks sorrowfully one last time at her, and then escorts his mom back to the van. Holly lays the baby back in the manger, slowly takes a few steps toward the van as it drives off, tugs at the cross around her neck, and walks back up to her apartment as we fade to black.

    You still get everyone in the last scene, you still have the final interaction between Elder Ferrell and Holly (but it’s more believable and more faithful to the reality of what happened and to those gosh-darn rules), and you still have the symbol of the grace of God working in everyone’s lives.

    Adam, just get me a Handycam, a Mac, and Final Cut Pro, and I’ll shoot the whole thing for you! :)


  69. Ray on March 1, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Jon, I really like that scene you paint.


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