The new Christian blockbuster War Room (PG, 120 minutes) has come under fire for its facile messages about toxic marriages. Curious, I watched the film at my local movie theater weeks ago, and found War Room to be a mediocre film with disturbing messages. A project of the Kendrick brothers (the filmmakers behind Courageous, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants), War Room is an implausible story of how prayer saves a failing marriage.
War Room opens with the sound of gunfire and scenes from the Vietnam War. Offscreen, a woman reminds the audience that war needs a strategy, and that few people know who they fight against or how to wage war the right way.
The film introduces us to the Jordans, an upper middle-class family composed of Elizabeth, Tony, and their daughter Danielle. The large, expensive Jordan home is a gilded cage, we soon learn, thanks to the misery wrought by Tony. Tony argues with Elizabeth constantly, ignores Danielle, and seems more concerned about his career as a pharmaceutical rep than his family life. To boot, Tony is stealing from his employer and considering an affair with an attractive colleague, Veronica.
Elizabeth, a real estate agent, complains about her miserable marriage to female co-workers at the real estate office. The women reply with "It's hard to submit to a man like that," and "Learn to duck so God can hit him."
Who talks like this in real life? I thought. Most women outside fundamentalists circles don't submit to their husbands. Their words counseled passivity and resignation, not action. This call for female passivity would appear later in the film.
An elderly woman named Clara Williams enlists Elizabeth to sell her house. As the two women chat over coffee, Clara asks Elizabeth inappropriate personal questions, such as whether she goes to church and whether her faith is hot or cold. Frankly, if one of my clients violated my boundaries so brazenly, I'd ask them to find another real estate agent!
When Clara learns that Elizabeth is trapped in a failing marriage, she asks Elizabeth how much she prays for Tony. Clara then reveals her "war room": an empty closet in which she prays. On the walls of the "war room" are prayers written on slips of paper, which Clara calls her "war strategy". Clara explains that it isn't her job to do the "heavy lifting", but to trust God through prayer. Men don't appreciate women trying to fix them, Clara explains to Elizabeth, as only God can change someone. Instead, Clara instructs Elizabeth to love, respect, and pray for Tony.
That's it? I thought. That's your advice to a woman with a rotten husband? Don't reason with him, don't try to change the situation, don't end the failing marriage, just shut up and take it?
Clara soon becomes Elizabeth's spiritual mentor (which struck me as inappropriate given their business relationship). One afternoon, after Clara, Elizabeth, and Danielle go out for ice cream, a knife-wielding mugger accosts them. Clara refuses to flee or submit, driving the mugger away in the name of Jesus. The scene was meant to demonstrate the power of Jesus over the most formidable of enemies, I assume, but it struck me as contrived, not to mention irresponsible.
Pulling a stunt like that in real life would probably get you killed, I fumed. Someone watching this movie will try that on a mugger and wind up in shock trauma.
Later, Clara reminds Elizabeth that God loves Tony in spite of his sins, and that all people have sinned and thus require God's forgiveness. God will refuse to forgive us if we refuse to forgive others, Clara insists, urging Elizabeth to forgive Tony. All humans deserve "judgment", which is what God will visit upon them if they refuse to "surrender" to him.
Clara's words sounded suspiciously like sin-leveling, or the belief that all sins carry equal weight. Whatever sins Elizabeth may have committed, they do not erase Tony's selfish actions or oblige Elizabeth to stay in a toxic relationship. No matter what Clara claims, no one should feel obligated to endure mistreatment.
According to Clara, Satan seeks to destroy the Jordan family and divide Elizabeth from God. How convenient. An invisible boogeyman is to blame for Tony's bad behavior, not Tony, I thought. "It's time for you to fight, Elizabeth!" Clara tells her spiritual protege, urging her to resist Satan with prayer.
Desperate to save her failing marriage and out of ideas, Elizabeth empties one of her closets and converts it to a prayer room. At first, Elizabeth is an unfocused and undisciplined warrior -- at one point, her daughter discovers her eating potato chips in the closet -- but she eventually finds her resolve. "God, God I need you," she prays in despair. "I'm not his judge. You are." After begging for forgiveness, Elizabeth enjoins God to "take over".
Elizabeth's prayer life takes on a disturbing tone as she chants "Submit to God, resist the Devil and he will flee" like a mantra. While Tony is away on a business trip, she storms through her house, berating Satan. "You are done!" she bellows. "You can't have my marriage! You can't have my daughter!" We can only guess what Danielle, who is also in the house, thinks of her mother's argument with an invisible man. Meanwhile, Tony's romantic dinner with his would-be mistress screeches to a halt when he vomits in the men's room. The implied message was that if you pray hard enough, God will give your cheating husband food poisoning.
Elizabeth and Danielle bond as prayer makes Elizabeth a more attentive mother. Danielle converts her own closet into a "war room", to Clara's delight. When Tony is around, Elizabeth is kind and non-combative, which confuses him.
Tony's employers fire him after discovering that he has stolen medication and manipulated his sales numbers. Angry and rudderless, Tony has a nightmare in which his doppelganger attacks Elizabeth. One day, he discovers Elizabeth's prayer closet, including a prayer in which agrees to "surrender her rights" to God. Finally humbled, Tony breaks down in his daughters' room, confessing his pride and selfishness to the Almighty. Tearfully, Tony confesses his illegal activity and near-adultery to his wife, falling to his knees as he apologizes. Danielle, too, gets an apology from Tony, who transforms into a better father through Jesus.
Elizabeth thanks Clara for being a "gift from God", and Clara reveals a secret about her past. Clara fought with her late husband Leo, resentful that his military career always took higher priority than she did. As much as she wanted to pray for him, she never made the time. When Leo died, she realized that she has squandered an opportunity to pray for the man she loved. As an act of remorse, Clara took it upon herself to mentor Elizabeth in the ways of a prayer warrior.
Implausibly, the film has a happy ending. Tony returns the medication and $19,000 he stole from his company, and in return, his former employers agree not to prosecute him. A relieved and reborn Tony finds work as director of a community center and pours himself into coaching his daughter's double-dutch team. One evening, Tony hands Elizabeth a heaping bowl of ice cream and massages her feet, ribbing her about her malodorous feet while wearing a dust mask. Reconciled with God and each other, the Jordan family finds happiness again.
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Given how poorly the other Kendrick brothers' films were received, I didn't expect War Room to be a cinematic masterpiece. Still, I hoped that a box office success would be entertaining, but instead, War Room was bland and mediocre. Shallow characters, jarring music, forced humor, and a predictable plot with no real climax made War Room tedious to watch. The movie's religious theme was delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, making it clear that the film was a proselytization tool.
What made War Room truly terrible were its toxic messages about marriage, prayer, and personal responsibility. First, the film refuses to acknowledge that some marriages cannot (and should not) be saved, exalting marriage as an idol that must be preserved at all costs. War Room scapegoats Satan as the source of marital discord, ignoring the many real-life reasons why marriages fail.
Prayer can supposedly transform unhealthy relationships into healthy ones, according to War Room, ignoring the fact that no amount of prayer will reform an cold, irresponsible, or abusive husband. With regard to domestic violence, urging victims to stay in abusive relationships and leave everything to God could result in psychological trauma, injury, and death. The central message of War Room is dangerous, since it urges Christian women to stay with toxic partners instead of taking action to protect themselves and their children.
Passivity was another central theme in War Room that troubled me. War Room argues that standing up for oneself, trying to reason with one's spouse, or taking action to fix a bad situation can only result in frustration. Rather, viewers are encouraged to cease action, pray, and wait for God to fix their problems. In the real world, forgetting self-efficacy is a surefire way to ensure that problems never get better. Problems are only resolved when we take action to resolve them.
War Room presents prayer as an almost magical act that can change people and shape reality. With enough prayer, we're led to believe, God becomes a cosmic genie who fixes all problems. I'd observed this attitude toward prayer and "prayer warriors" in New Apostolic Reformation rhetoric, but its presence in War Room suggests that it has gone mainstream among evangelical Christians.
The problem is, prayer doesn't work that way. God doesn't swoop down and fix problems if only people pray earnestly enough. Countless people have suffered failure and tragedy in spite of their supplications to God. Are we to believe that prayer will compel God to save marriages even as he refuses to hear the prayers of the war-ravaged, the starving, the dying, and the destitute?
In conclusion, War Room offers little entertainment and no wisdom, only unhealthy messages that make no sense in the real world.
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
Love, Joy, Feminism: Christian Movie War Room: You Can Fix Your Abusive Husband through Prayer
A.V. Club: The filmmakers who helped Kirk Cameron battle porn want to pray away racial tension
The Stranger: Box-Office Hit War Room Made Me Shake with Rage
Roger Ebert: War Room