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Nearly every time we run a review of a film that's rated R, we get at least one comment from a reader—email, Twitter, Facebook, or on the article itself—that asks that question, the one I've come to expect: "Why is Christianity Today reviewing an R-rated film?"
Sometimes it comes in other forms—why are we "promoting" films with objectionable content, or why do we talk about films that "glorify" sin, or why do we tell Christians to watch R-rated films—but the implicit question is the same: Why should Christians even care that these films exist, let alone read about them or write about them?
It's a question that I (and a lot of people who have written and edited for Christianity Today) have thought about a lot. It's a serious question that requires a serious answer, mostly because, as plenty of people have pointed out, some Christians—in an effort to escape legalism—have swung to the other extreme and assumed that anything is fair game to watch, that it's more important to be "cool" than to be thoughtful in our movie viewing. (Our own critic Brett McCracken has written a whole book on this subject.)
So, I'm grateful for the opportunity to try to answer the question. But I've got to warn you: this is a complex issue that a lot of people have been thinking about for years, and so it's going to take a little time to answer it. I didn't want to answer too quickly, because I didn't want you to think we approach this question glibly. Even then, I'm bound to miss something. But I'll do the best I can, and if you can, stick with me.
Why do we review R-rated films? And what is the purpose of criticism in the first place?
Let's briefly recall what an R rating even is. The MPAA issues the ratings for films in the United States. MPAA stands for the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade organization that represents the six big Hollywood studios. It was formed in 1922 to advance those studios' interests. It formulated the guidelines that first governed the "Production Code" (or, as it is more popularly known, the Hays Code), and now it administers the ratings system that Americans are familiar with. (Other countries have entirely other organizations that rate films along different categories; for instance, Swedish cinemas recently decided to add the category of "sexism" to their ratings schema.) Strong lobbying from studios can often change a film's rating.
The current ratings system has also undergone a number of changes over time. For instance, the PG-13 designation didn't exist until July 1984, and the first film to receive it was Red Dawn. It was instituted largely because of complaints about violence and gore in films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Poltergeist, and Clash of the Titans, which were rated PG.
But even after the PG-13 rating appeared on the scene, some of the standards were relaxed compared to today's standards. Some films that today would almost certainly receive PG-13 ratings were still rated PG—all three Back to the Future movies (released in 1985, 1989, and 1990), for instance, were rated PG. I saw them for the first time on DVD when I was in college, and I was actually shocked by the amount of language and some of the, shall we say, racy themes that wouldn't emerge in a PG movie today, especially since the rating is associated largely with films for children.
In the 1990s, the MPAA began to release explanations for ratings—first for R-rated films, and then for PG, PG-13, and NC-17 films as well. These help a viewer to distinguish between, for instance, the R ratings for three very different films: the Irish musical Once ("for language"), The Passion of the Christ ("for sequences of graphic violence"), and The Wolf of Wall Street ("for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence"). Recently, "smoking" was added as a factor in these advisories.
So the MPAA ratings are there to help people decide if the film's for them. Someone who might not go see a movie rated PG-13 for "adult themes" might be okay with a PG-13 rated movie that received its rating for "cartoon violence," for instance. Among other things, it's a recognition that one size can't fit all, and it's a way for studios to protect their own interests and avoid lawsuits from unhappy viewers—and censorship from governmental or other sources, something that was a live issue in the early days of cinema. (For more on this—and on the surprisingly influential role that clergy played in putting together and maintaining this system—I highly recommend the excellent history book Reforming Hollywood, by Calvin College professor William Romanowski; I reviewed it in CT a couple years ago.)
R-rated films, then, are a category of films that have content—maybe war violence or graphic violence, maybe sexual content or nudity, maybe difficult or disturbing circumstances that may bother some viewers—that most of us wouldn't introduce to children or teenagers. Many of us would also avoid some of this content in our own lives, for a variety of reasons.
I, for instance, am personally very disturbed by what the MPAA often calls "supernatural" content in films—basically, I can't handle on-screen demons. Even a film like The Exorcism of Emily Rose—a movie made by a Christian filmmaker whom I respect and based on a true story in which an agnostic is pushed toward belief as a result of prosecuting a potentially botched exorcism—scares the, well, hell out of me. When I saw it, I couldn't sleep for a month.
Another instance might be a film that deals truthfully with the difficulty of living through and recovering from an eating disorder or self-harm. Certainly a movie like that could be made thoughtfully, and tastefully, and it might even help viewers to understand a disorder they know nothing about and empathize with sufferers—but it would also receive a higher rating for "adult content," partially because it can act as a trigger for those who may have been through the experience.
Of course, that's all just talking about the MPAA, who rate nearly every film made or released in the United States (excepting some documentaries, smaller independent films with very limited release, and foreign movies). What about the choices we make in Christianity Today? Why do we choose to review R-rated movies—not just ones about demons or disorders, but also movies like The Wolf of Wall Street?
Let's get sidetracked for just a second and talk about criticism itself. Christians historically understand some literary genres well: realistic fictional and factual narratives, journalism (thank you, Luke), testimony and personal essays, allegory, poetry (consider the Psalms), fantasy, and, of course, sermons. We are people of The Book, after all.
But our understanding of the genre of criticism hasn't been great. This isn't all our fault. I don't think a lot of people have much experience with the genre, which has changed a lot over the last hundred years. I teach and primarily write criticism, and it is the proverbial redheaded stepchild of literary genres: these days, artists are wary of critics, readers assume that critics are just "critical" (read: negative) about everything and out of touch, and even critics can get apologetic about what they do, figuring it's just a derivative genre that barely deserves to exist.
But I maintain that well-written, thoughtful criticism serves a culture-making purpose: it helps us understand the world we live in new ways; it teaches us about and records our cultural history; and it helps us keep a pulse on ourselves and our culture. And when it's written well, it brings us both insight and delight.
Our goal at Christianity Today—as I outlined in an article a few months ago—is to both explore movies as works that tell us something about ourselves, and to help us love our neighbors better. This follows the guidance given and modeled by some of the great cultural critics, from C.S. Lewis to Roger Ebert and many, many more.
While that governs our criticism, it's not all we think about at CT Movies. We're careful to publish critics who are Christians, who are excellent writers, and who have a certain bent toward criticism.
Specifically, we don't see our "movie review" as places to take apart a movie, bit by bit, and lay out all the pieces before you, then tell you whether or not you should see it. There can be a place for that sort of writing—but I, along with others, would call that genre of writing a "movie report" or something like that. It has a lot in common with a book report: it informs you of a movie's existence, tells you about all of its parts, and gives you a summary thought near the end.
There are plenty of reasons you might want to read a report like that. But I don't think it's criticism, which has a different goal. Our goal is to try to help readers think about movies in new ways, informed by the Christian understanding of the world that undergirds everything we write.
We—along with many other critics—think that a review ought to be an essay that uses the writer's experience with the film, along with careful thinking about a movie, to provide a perspective that the viewer might not have considered on something that's shaping the culture around them.
Along with that, we think about whether or not the movie is "good" or "bad." But we think there's a few data points to consider when we're making that judgment.
What are those data points? Answering that question brings us to our star ratings, which, I believe, are at the crux of this whole question. I sense (and sometimes hear loudly) from some readers that they are disappointed that we would give a "high rating" to an R-rated film—or, worse, that we'd "recommend" it.
Recently at the Gospel Coalition's website, in a post titled "Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck," Trevin Wax asked this question as well. In his piece, Wax repeats the sentiment of a handful of responses we received to my recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street: "Take, for example, Christianity Today's recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alyssa [sic] Wilkinson devotes nearly half her review to the graphic depictions of immorality, yet still gives the film 3.5 stars out of 4."
As Wax notes, this particular review did indeed garner the longest and most explicit content advisory I've ever written, which began with these sentences and went on from here:
Few CT readers would be glad they saw this film, so let's just stave that off at the outset. Take a quick mental inventory of the commandments handed down on Mt. Sinai: they're definitely all broken here, with the possible exception of murder, often quite graphically (the film got what we might call a "hard R"), generally with glee—though from what I know of certain pockets of Wall Street culture, this movie is no overstatement.
Yet as Wax also notes, the film garnered a 3.5/4 rating. For some readers, that 3.5 stars signaled that we were suggesting that Christianity Today readers ought to see The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that generated a great deal of controversy in the mainstream press (though not for most of the same reasons) and that broke the records for the number of f-bombs dropped throughout the movie.
I wrote that review (and would write the same review today). So you might reasonably be wondering: why did I give the film such a high rating? Or why did Brett McCracken give 4 stars to Her, a film with a few scenes of graphic language and brief nudity? Why did American Hustle (which is in many ways tame by comparison, save all the low-cut dresses) get only 2.5 stars?
Let me explain what we think star ratings are for. A rating should do two things: assess the worldview of the film, and assess the artistic merit of the film.
The first data point in our star ratings—I use the word "worldview" as shorthand for it—is a little tricky to define. But it's part of what makes our film criticism different from what you might get from other sources.
As we know, few movie productions that make it to your local cineplex are both artistically excellent and made from an explicitly Christian perspective. Yet you certainly don't have to be a Christian to say something true, or to have perspective on the world that overlaps with Scripture. (Furthermore, we know that, as fallen beings, Christians are perfectly capable of not seeing the world perfectly—and so can make things that don't in fact have a "Christian" outlook.)
When I'm working on a review, I think about it this way: did this movie lie to me about the world? Does it teach the viewer (however subtly) to love something they shouldn't? Does it say that sinful (or just stupid) behavior is required to live the good life?
I recently read that Roger Ebert—who had a complicated relationship with belief and disbelief that he talked about in his memoir—said that if a movie did its job, you left the movie as a truer version of who you were. If I read that correctly, then I think he means the movie teaches you something new about what it is to live well as a human, among other humans, on this planet.
There are plenty of filmmakers (and writers and other artists) who have a different idea about what this looks like than I do, of course. So I'm not just sitting down and asking them to repeat my beliefs back to me.
Instead, I want them to be honest and truthful and, above all, not manipulative: a filmmaker who embodies dissatisfaction with a world that he believes is broken beyond repair is quite different than one who says the world is broken and so we ought to just all do whatever we want. (I addressed this in my review of The Counselor.) A romantic comedy that suggests that we need more than just romance to live the good life (like About Time, for instance) is going to get higher marks than one (or, really, the legion of them) that suggest to viewers that all your problems will be solved if you can just fall in love.
Some of our reviewers, I think, are especially good at picking up on when a movie is lying to us. A good example of a review we ran that addressed the worldview question was Jack Cuidon's review of Free Birds, a film marketed at children and their families, which, as he pointed out, also advocates a troubling view of the world informed by pragmatism. Jack also gave half a star (half a star!) to 2 Guns because it is, as he put it, "a huge, harmful, insidious, attractive lie."
Another great example is Ken Morefield's piece on Before Midnight, which took a look at the trilogy of which it's a part and praised the film for its nuanced and truthful portrayal of married life. Ken also wrote insightfully about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit—and what it tells us about how we've hollowed out our expectations about our "action hero" movies.
Christian film criticism is marked by a view of the world and a definition of the "good life" shaped by the fullest understanding of the gospel: creation, fall, and redemption. Not every movie has to embody all of these things (though a few seem to pull it off), but a Christian film critic sees a film through a lens shaped by this full-bodied understanding.
So where does The Wolf of Wall Street land on this spectrum? As I mentioned in my content advisory, and in the review itself, Wolf (fairly clearly) condemns the action of its main character. It does it brilliantly—Belfort indicts himself through his narration, something the real Belfort does in his memoir, presumably unwittingly—and there's an FBI agent in the film whose very presence seems to be a biting critique.
At the same time, Scorsese doesn't take the viewer's hand and say, look there: this guy's bad. He's expecting the audience to come to that conclusion themselves—and those who don't want to, won't. That's something I addressed in the final paragraphs of my content advisory. But this is a film with a clear (and perhaps surprising) moral sense of the universe: Belfort's a despicable character who takes advantage of those who are less privileged than he is, even as he continues to live the high life—both in the movie and in real life.
Which leads to the second calculus, which is pretty self-explanatory: is the acting good? Is the writing believable for its genre? Does the cinematography look good (or at least not distracting)? How's the music? The lighting? Movies are a medium with a lot of moving parts, and part of what we look at is whether the film is well-made—taking into account, of course, factors such as the budget, the resources available to the filmmakers, and the experience of the players involved. This means we do research as we write, and we also remind ourselves of the previous work the filmmakers have done (sometimes watching or reading about old films to refresh our memories).
The reason we consider this second data point (artistry) is that we think that it's important to treat movies as movies. As with all artistic mediums, we believe that excellent craftsmanship is worthy of our praise. Imagine if your church pianist played hymns that you like—hymns with good, true, beautiful lyrics—but botched the execution every time, such that the problems actually drew attention to themselves, instead of allowing you to experience the song itself. What would you do? You'd encourage the pianist's good intentions, but you might also replace the pianist, or at least encourage him or her to take some more lessons. This is similar to what we're doing with movies: we're thinking about whether they were good, and if not, we're wondering how they might have been better.
On this data point, I argue that Wolf of Wall Street scores high marks, both when compared with its contemporaries and with its predecessors. It's certainly one of Scorsese's best films, with some very sophisticated filmmaking and skillful storytelling that, by all accounts, surpasses its source material (the memoir written by the real-life broker Jordan Belfort). And Leonardo Di Caprio turns in one of the best performances of his career, which recently got him an Oscar nomination. It's compellingly written. I mentioned all of these things in the review.
Another review that focused on artistry was Brett McCracken's piece on Terrence Malick's most recent film, To the Wonder, in which he not only talked about the film but took a look at Malick's entire filmography. The reader, then, has some tools with which to approach the film, or at least to talk about Malick's work. (For what it's worth, I still haven't seen To the Wonder.)
We do this because we believe that Christians, and Christian critics, ought to take an active part in cultivating the culture around them. As CT executive editor Andy Crouch helpfully puts it in his book Culture Making, cultivating an aspect of culture includes "bringing order" to it, as a gardener would to a patch of wild weeds: pulling out the bad ones, taking care of the soil, and planting "good" plants in orderly rows. In our case, that means we're trying to make sense of a film as a cultural artifact by figuring out if it works or doesn't, and then figuring out why. In so doing, we hope to bring a little order to the film world, and to help our readers (many of whom are avid movie watchers, and some of who may become critics or filmmakers!) start to discern this for themselves.
This is where our star ratings come from. Star ratings don't constitute "promotions" or "recommendations"—we have no vested interest in suggesting you ought to see a movie. We're just grading the movie itself. We're telling you if it succeeds or fails as a film.
But there's more to our reviews than just those ratings.
As I worked on the review, I thought about how to address these two elements—the clear indictment of Belfort and Scorsese's and Di Caprio's talent—while acknowledging that this is a film that many Christianity Today readers (and others) wouldn't even consider seeing. Here's the MPAA's rating again, included at the top of our review: "Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence."
There are those who likely assume that not a single CT reader would consider seeing a film with a rating like that. But the truth is this: plenty do, without thinking about it. I get mail from them. Plenty are wondering if they should see it—I get mail from them too. And plenty more "tend toward the squeaky clean" (as Andy Crouch characterized his own viewing on Twitter) and would never see this film, but have friends, neighbors, coworkers, children, parents, siblings, parishioners, and fellow churchgoers who will, and who may want to talk about it afterward. I'd suggest that there is not one CT reader who doesn't fall into one of these three categories.
This is exactly why we review R-rated films (yes, I finally got here!). You and I never have a moral imperative to see any film—whether it's well made, or has a solid worldview, or is funny or enjoyable or hard-hitting.
But there is a moral imperative we do all have: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Loving someone means being able to live life alongside her. It means being able to talk about what matters to her. It means we go out of our way—we sacrifice our own time and comfort—in order to do what Jesus did: enter someone else's world, take on her concerns as our own, and identify with another person.
How you go about doing that, though, is a matter of conscience and calling. It is not for me to decide for you whether you should see a particular movie. That's something you're responsible to decide for yourself, with wisdom from your community, your conscience, and the authority under which you've been placed. But it's not a matter of fear: it's a matter of wisdom.
This is why we have the "Caveat Spectator" section in our criticism. Our critics work very hard to tell you if a film is well made, and we can try to judge whether or not it is manipulative or untruthful. But what we can't tell you is if it crosses the line into having one too many f-bombs for you, or if you'll find a particular film's handling of sexual content more titillating, character-developing, or disgusting.
So instead, at the end of our reviews, we write a paragraph (or four) that expands on the MPAA's content advisory to help you decide for yourself, according to the dictates of your own conscience. "Caveat emptor" is a common Latin phrase with which you're probably familiar that means "buyer, beware." "Caveat lector" sometimes pops up, too, meaning "reader, beware." We tweaked it for our own use—"Caveat Spectator"— to say, "watcher, beware!" (We used to call the section "The Family Corner," but changed it this year mostly because we believe everyone—not just those with children—ought to go into a movie knowing what to expect regarding potentially offensive content.)
If you didn't see Wolf of Wall Street, but were angry that we covered it, it's because you heard something about it from another outlet or a friend. If you did see it and you're angry that we covered it, it's because neither the explicit MPAA rating nor our "Caveat Spectator" helped warn you away from something it should have.
But the reason we covered the film is precisely because we knew everyone would be talking about it, and will be for quite a while (especially if Di Caprio wins an Oscar), simply because it's a movie made by a legendary filmmaker that talks about a very sore spot in our culture: the ethical nightmares our market excesses bred in our recent history. And it's also about how pride comes before a fall, but how our broken system lets some people get away with more pride than others.
For every person who contacted us outraged about our coverage of Wolf, there were a few who contacted us to say that they saw the film and were glad that we covered it, because it helped them (they say) frame the movie in the context of that "worldview" question. There are others who were on the fence about whether or not they should see it, and who read the review and decided against it, but were grateful for the perspective we provided.
I can't—and won't—write a review that will tell every CT reader what they should do with a movie like Wolf of Wall Street. That's not my calling. What I, and our other critics, can do is this: we can give you the tools to decide if this is a movie that you will see, based on your conscience and on where you want to spend your money and time. And if you decide against a film, or never intended to see it in the first place, we can give you a perspective that will help you have a more thoughtful discussion about a movie with your friends and neighbors, rather than dismissing their interests out of hand.
In his Gospel Coalition piece, Trevin Wax asked: "at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?" Later, he asks, "At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?"
He doesn't actually answer that question in his post, though he points out that throughout Christian history, different figures have approached this in different ways ("Paul used a popular poet of his day in order to make a point in his gospel presentation," he says, while Gregory of Nyssa "saw the entertainment mindset as decadent and deserving of judgment"; I might add that the Psalmist exhorted us not to "stand in the way of sinners," while Jesus was criticized by religious leaders for hanging out with "tax collectors and sinners").
In his response, though, Wax is doing something pretty close to what we're aiming to do here. At CT Movies, we're asking that question with every movie we review: is this film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable?
But we're not going to give you an answer, either. It's up to you to decide. That's what the local church is for; that's why God gives wisdom to those who ask for it. Our movie reviews aim, instead, to help you think and converse more thoughtfully—even more wisely—about a medium that's shaping our culture in powerful ways, whether or not you saw a particular movie.
Why do we review R-rated films? Because we want to raise questions, not give answers. Because we want Christians to be some of the most thoughtful conversation partners and culture makers you can find. Because we want to celebrate the excellent and mourn what's bad—even if those two things show up in the same place. And because we want to serve our readers as they love their neighbors.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic. She is also Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at The King's College in New York City. You can follow her at @alissamarie.