Director Scott Charles Stewart seems to be making a career out of erasing Jesus from history, and celebrating supernatural heroes who rebel against God for the greater good … in apocalyptic action/horror movies starring Paul Bettany.
"Let's pretend the New Testament never happened" is how Stewart reportedly spun his 2010 apocalyptic thriller Legion to Christian actor Doug Jones. Legion is set in an alternate-reality version of the 21st century in which God sends the archangel Gabriel to destroy humanity, but Michael (Bettany) goes rogue to defend mankind against the forces of heaven. (Despite the "New Testament never happened" vibe, stray hints of Jesus' impact on history crop up here and there, as when a character refers to the "21st century," or even in the profane use of "Christ.")
Stewart's latest is Priest, a thoroughly repugnant Western/wuxia/sci-fi/horror/action mashup, based on a Korean graphic novel, that's replete with the language and iconography of the New Testament and the church age, particularly the Catholic church. Yet here it's like the New Testament happened without Jesus—without the Incarnation, without good news, without grace.
There is a "church"; there are "clergy"; there are "priests" who take vows of celibacy and obedience and are called "Father." There is ritual confession and mention of "absolution," with words taken directly from the Catholic rite and penance with prescribed recitations of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. There are echoes of the Gospels—but the gospel, the good news, appears to be entirely missing in this world.
There are crosses everywhere, and characters use the sign of the cross in prayer. The film ends with an overtly Eucharistic ritual, celebrated by Christopher Plummer's evil Monsignor. There's even a visual echo of Calvary, with three murdered priests hung up on a trio of crosses, like Christ flanked by the two thieves. Yet despite these direct passion-narrative echoes—and the obvious Catholic milieu—there are no crucifixes; the crosses never display a corpus, a depiction of the body of Jesus on the cross. The significance of the cross in this world, like the church itself, is unexplained and unconnected to faith in a historical founder; the cross is only a talisman, a charm or a weapon (often literally; cruciform daggers and throwing stars abound).
The church in this world is depicted as a despotic, Orwellian oligarchy, from much the same mold as Pullman's Magisterium, brainwashing the masses with mantras like "God protects you; the church protects you" and "To go against the church is to go against God." This mantra is applied absolutely and across the board, with no fine distinctions between dogma and discipline or acknowledgments regarding the absolute authority of conscience as per the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Henry Newman. (Gosh, that last sentence feels like using a cannon to swat a mosquito, but hey, the mosquito was asking for it.)
The movie's "priests" are Jedi-like holy warriors who won a great victory in a major war with mankind's ancient enemies the vampires, which makes Priest sound about 17 million times cooler and more interesting than it is. That's before adding that it's also a take-off of The Searchers with Bettany's Priest in the John Wayne role as a loner veteran unable to reassimilate into society after the war who goes on a quest to save his kidnapped niece (Lily Collins) or kill her if she's been infected by her vampire captors.