No matter your opinion of Christian films or, specifically, church-made films like Facing the Giants, Fireproof and To Save a Life, one thing is clear: They are inspiring other churches and Christians to make their own films and tell their own stories. Such is the case for The Grace Card.
David Evans from Calvary Church in Cordova, Tennessee (a Memphis suburb), saw Fireproof (made by Sherwood Baptist Church) and thought, "We could do that too." Serving as director and executive producer, Evans led the church's creative arts team in anchoring a cast and crew of relative rookies by recruiting an experienced screenwriter, Howard Klausner (Space Cowboys), and sending their script to veteran actor Louis Gossett, Jr. (whose recent resume includes Christian films like Left Behind: World at War and The Least Among You).
What might be surprising is that former Oscar winner Gossett—who has a small role here—does not turn in the film's best performance. Or that the writing does not stand out from other Christian movies. Instead, the film's greatest strength is the dynamic performances of its two newcomer lead actors, Michael Joiner and Michael Higgenbottom.
At the film's center is Bill "Mac" McDonald (Joiner), an embittered cop still fighting through the pain and regret of his young son's death nearly 17 years ago. The casualties of his pain include his wife Sara and another son, Blake, who also carry years of burden. Everything is falling apart for Mac: He continues to be passed over for promotion, his marriage is a shell of true relationship, and Blake is experimenting with drugs and failing his senior year of high school. And in Mac's view, the bad news got worse when he is forced to partner with the guy who got promoted in his place, Sam Wright (Higgenbottom). For the normally solitary Mac, having to share his squad car is bad enough, but even worse for him is that Sam is black and a vocal Christian. Mac already has bigoted attitudes about African-Americans since it was a black man who killed (accidentally) his son all those years ago. And he certainly doesn't want to be preached at. Sam, who is pastoring a young church on the side, is all of that rolled up in one.
As a faith-based film, it's not hard to guess where this is going or that it includes the Christian movie staple of a climatic prayer of salvation. In many ways, the movie is awfully predictable. You'll see the big plot points coming, and they're laid on thick. But when the movie is closely focused on the character drama of the two cops, it is powerful and emotional. Joiner and Higgenbottom are very good. I left the movie wishing for more scenes between the two of them, just to see these characters interact. To see their continued conflict and their budding friendship, to see them sharpen each other as iron on iron. That is where The Grace Card excels.
Another refreshing aspect: The film isn't focused on a messy unsaved person and a Christian on a white horse riding in to save him. Pastor Sam is a likeable, solid Christian man who has his struggles. He questions his path: Is he a cop? A pastor? Both? Sam also wrestles with his relationship with Mac. He despises Mac, and knows Mac hates him for his skin color. He doesn't want to be around Mac—let alone witness to him.
To handle these complicated emotions, Sam turns to an inspiring lesson left behind by an ancestor (and shared with him by Gossett, who plays his grandfather): a legacy of grace in even the most difficult circumstances. With this example of tough grace, Sam sets out to be real with his congregation and practice life-changing grace, even with Mac.
The film is so powerful when operating on the personal level of two men working out faith that I was disappointed that their story was buried in a heavy-handed and bloated plot. It has moments of feeling like a current era Clint Eastwood-directed film like Million-Dollar Baby or Gran Torino. But The Grace Card gets bogged down in cliché, coincidence, and corniness as it heaps big plot point onto big plot point. There are such strong hints of a hard-hitting, smarter character study that I was disappointed by the candy-coated, tie-all-ends, over-manipulative plotting. Part of that may be due to trying to write the film for both those in and out of the church—to be all things to all people, instead of just telling a story.
The film might've been much more moving if it wasn't so intent on showing such blatant witnessing and a clear conversion, but instead focused merely on a personal story about two men struggling to figure out what grace looks like in a painful world of broken relationships. If it simply told that story with the power and gravitas of the crisp scenes between Mac and Sam, it would be even more powerful. Story always wins.
Still, it will move people, stir hearts, and bring tears. I'm not sure it will be as accessible to the unchurched; it seems more like a film primarily for evangelicals. But it's another good step for what churches can do in film ministry. With new technologies, growing media ministries in churches, and a passion for arts in younger Christians, we are seeing a tide-shift in the ability of in-the-pew believers to bring their stories to the big screen with great effectiveness.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What message most stood out to you? What character did you most relate to? Why?
- What most strikes you about the note written by Sam's ancestor: "I promise to pray for you every day, ask your forgiveness, grant you the same, and be your friend always." What part of that message is most difficult for you to live out?
- Who do you (specifically or in general) have the hardest time showing grace to?
- What aspect of the film challenged you in your faith life?
- How do you think the movie defines what being a Christian is all about?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Grace Card is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements. The movie begins with the death of a child. While shocking, little of the actual event is shown. Following normal police life, the movie features gunplay and gritty cop-show type scenarios. One character is said to be doing drugs (a drug apparatus is found) but is not seen doing them.
Photos © Provident Films.
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