Do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and savior Jesus Christ? Or more accurately, do you have 860 minutes? That’s as long as it will take you to watch every film or series where Andrew Garfield plays a Christian whose faith is tested. Formerly a walking V05 commercial, Garfield has pivoted in the last half dozen years to playing an elaborate game of “Collect the Sects,” giving us a broad, complicated range of how faith can compel human beings.
The thing is, Christian denominations are famously a little combative about sharing the spotlight, and would rather it be decided which of them comes out on top. As a former altar boy and expert hymn-mumbler, I have found myself suddenly compelled to break them all down for you. The Lord acts in mysterious ways, after all.
When conscientious objector Desmond Doss saved 75 lives at the Battle of Okinawa in Hacksaw Ridge, he did it because he was a Seventh Day Adventist. The religion’s key deviation from mainstream trinitarian doctrine is their belief that Christ is coming back, like, imminently—so start looking busy. Adventists live extremely modestly, and have come under fire for promoting racism and homophobia, as well as failing to safeguard children in faith schools (sometimes by promoting racism and homophobia). Faith bluntly pervades Hacksaw Ridge. Being so Christian-oriented is not a problem; it would be dishonest to tell Doss’ story without centering his religion. But the film is less interested in Doss’ personal creed and values, and more with using it as a stand-in for director Mel Gibson’s own general religious conservatism. There’s little insight into how Adventism in specific caused Doss’ heroism. All details on the religion feel like window-dressing: He observes the Sabbath on a Saturday, there’s mention of his vegetarianism and we see his peak physical fitness (Adventists believe Christ is ministered to the whole body, so every part of it must be kept healthy). But faith in Hacksaw Ridge is not a mysterious, complex force that toughens the humanity of even the meekest soul. It’s dramatically inert; an obstinate, unyielding mass that’s unwilling to pose questions to itself or show any concessions. When all of Doss’ conflict comes externally, as military men judge him before learning the error of their ways, it makes it difficult to parse cogent arguments about how faith makes people capable of superhuman acts. Andrew Garfield plays a penitent, unassuming man in a bullish, self-assured film. The two don’t match.
Every preacher is, on some level, performing when preaching, and while religious performance doesn’t signal spiritual fraudulence, it can certainly be used to disguise it. Enter Jim Bakker, the televangelist and secondary lead in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a man whose grasp of Godliness is rapidly dissipating. There’s two sides to Garfield’s performance: The abusive, bitter sinner, and his projected façade of religiosity, delivered with enough conviction for a hive of followers to believe it symbolizes a substantive connection with God. Performance exists in all Christian denominations, but it is fundamental to Pentecostalism. Their faith emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit, the invisible power that acts as connective tissue between God and us mere mortals. To them, one’s relationship with God is highly experiential; it’s not enough to believe in your heart, there needs to be something tangible and visible to prove it. Cue divine healings, speaking in tongues and an occasional exorcism. It makes the faith perfect for a pastor with no spiritual soul, but with a knack for performance. The televangelism that Bakker rolls out prompts interesting questions. Can you administer faith through a television screen? More importantly, does the apparatus of a television disguise someone’s fraudulent faith more than it would in person? Garfield’s lively but wounded performance shows us a man whom you suspect, under the sing-song words and artificial smiling, is aware of these questions and his own corruption. Unfortunately, Tammy Faye is less interested in giving these ideas a space to grow, settling for a more conventional, easy-to-swallow narrative that does a disservice to compelling ideas of late-capitalist faith. We’re left with the suggestions of a better film that only exists in our heads.
Prayer gets a lot of screen time in the opening two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven, which figures for a Mormon detective story set in the Church of Latter Day Saints heartland. It’s here the series turns a piercing gaze into the violent, righteous fundamentalism that has been allowed to germinate in the heart of the church. And when Detective Jeb Pyre—a man who prays before attending a murder scene and in between interrogation sessions—discovers a spiritual rot in his precious faith, he’s confronted with how many values he may share with the killers. Mormonism has similar roots to Adventism; both can be traced to restorative efforts to find a truer form of worship, and both began with spiritual leaders and movements in early 19th century America. There’s a lot to be said about the psychological identity of a relatively nascent country trying to break free from institutional religion, but Under the Banner’s focus, crystalized in its protagonist’s journey, is how extremist values are more alike to mainstream religion than they are different. Garfield’s performance is defined by subtlety and nuance, you can feel how naturally he wears the Mormon faith and how comforting its effects are. But Pyre’s faith is also his vulnerability—it’s what threatens to unwind him, taking the crime as a violation of what he personally holds dear. But in a town where the suspect’s family outnumbers the police officers, does the fundamentalists’ faith have more in common with the original Mormon teachings than Pyre’s? It’s a more introspective version of Hacksaw Ridge, where interrogating your faith’s history and teachings is paramount for an honest, moral relationship with God.
Theologians are undoubtedly furious with me for calling Jesuits a sect—they’re technically a religious order as part of the Catholic Church, giving them more protection and influence when first established than these other denominations had. They look for God in all avenues of life, leading them to pursuits as varied as cartography and astronomy (there are 34 moon craters named after Jesuit astronomers). They also love, through their extensive missionary work, a good deal of colonialism. But in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the two Jesuits who set out to recover their reportedly apostatized mentor in Edo period Japan see their mission only as hallowed and righteous. The Tokugawa Shogunate’s violent Christian persecution (forcing Japanese “Kirishitans” to practice in hushed secrecy) is a perfect backdrop for Rodrigues’ battle with religious defection, and never has a Garfield performance been richer with interior conflict, doubt and ill-advised resolve. What if a man who’s trained to look for God everywhere can’t find him anywhere? Writer Tony Kushner described Garfield as “a spiritual explorer,” and the actor’s year-long prep under a Jesuit for Silence helped him combat a malaise of insubstantiality by finding, and falling in love with, Jesus Christ. (In a spiritually nourishing way; I haven’t yet seen paparazzi photos of Garfield flogging Bibles door-to-door in L.A.) There’s a meeting point between Garfield and Rodrigues; a faithless actor tries to understand human emotion through a character whose steadfast devotion is crumbling. One feels closer to God, the other further away. Garfield’s dedication to extensive preparation is not what makes him stand out as an actor, it’s the vulnerability that motivates it. His embrace of openness and humility, not unlike how his characters open themselves to God, helps his performances feel powerful. It’s not because he’s transformed into someone else, but because he’s brought some of himself to them. It’s there in his Godly and secular roles alike. (Please stay tuned for my forthcoming “Spider-Man is Eastern Orthodox” column.)
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.