Review: “Persecuted”

James Remar stars in the new conservative movie "Persecuted," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.First off, allow me to state upfront: I’m a Republican and, while not religious myself, I’m generally sympathetic to the view that the contemporary American Left has unfairly demonized socially conservative Christians. One needn’t look any further than popular progressive reactions to the recent Supreme Court decision on employer-subsidized birth control for evidence of such demonization. While there are several valid arguments to be made that SCOTUS ruled inappropriately, extending the Religious Freedom Restoration Act too far, the commonly-voiced progressive idea that the decision reinforced the Hobby Lobby owners’ underlying “hatred of women” represents little more than an insidious vilification of those of a different belief-system.

Given my perspective, I was really rooting for “Persecuted,” a new independent film produced by Christian conservatives with an ideological perspective that couldn’t be farther removed from that of Hollywood liberals. Sure, the title, which implies that Christians are a “persecuted” class in America, struck me as a bit much (okay, a lot much)—demonization and persecution are two very different things—but sometimes sensationalism is needed to sell tickets.

I should never have been so optimistic. As with the few similar productions that have come before it, from “Last Ounce of Courage” to the “Atlas Shrugged” films, this is not the earnest attempt to shed light on reasonable viewpoints held by a large number of Americans rarely pictured on the silver-screen that I had hoped for. Instead, it’s a paranoid, delusional product of far-right fringe thinking, a politically-themed conspiracy thriller that resembles reality as sparsely as the summertime fantasies “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The film conceives of our country as a place where liberal politicians are willing to take any measures necessary, including murder, to end Christianity’s influence on the populace. Next time the Left wishes to argue that the religious Right in America is deranged and crazy, all they’ll need to do is point to “Persecuted,” even though the movie really only represents the views of a small group of wingnuts.

Given that “Persecuted” attempts to weave an allegory that has no basis in reality, it comes as no surprise that its narrative makes very little logical sense. As the film opens, protagonist John Luther (James Remar), the leader of an Evangelical megachurch, refuses to lend his support to U.S. Senator Donald Harrison’s (Bruce Davison’s) “Faith and Fairness Act.” The contents of this piece of legislation are never detailed in the movie, probably because writer/director Daniel Lusko couldn’t conceive of a credible law that would actually result in the “persecution” of Christians. There are passing mentions that the law would officially classify the U.S. as “no longer a Christian nation”—whatever that means—and even that it might require places of worship to allow other religions use of their facilities (“With the flick of a switch, you could be preaching to a synagogue or a temple or a mosque,” Harrison menacingly tells Luther). But beyond these nebulous ideas, the movie never actually tells us what’s in the bill.

The plot kicks into high gear when Senator Harrison, unable to earn Luther’s endorsement, sets into motion a not-so-elaborate and thoroughly implausible Plan B wherein Luther is framed for the statutory rape and murder of a teenage girl. We never get a clear sense of why Luther’s endorsement is so coveted; sure, he’s an influential public figure, but this is a bill that will be decided on by Congress, not a ballot measure voted on by the public. But never mind logic: filmmaker Lusko insists on action action action as Luther flees the law until he can exonerate himself. This is likely Lusko’s conscious attempt to keep the viewer distracted from recognizing that the movie’s ideology is informed by little more than poorly-written fiction. Still, even the most elemental plotting in “Persecuted” reflects astonishing boneheadedness. For instance, less than halfway into the film, Luther comes into possession of a flash-drive containing video evidence of the entire crime, clearly showing that he was framed, only to allow this sole copy to be intercepted by Senator Harrison’s henchmen within minutes.

The production values of “Persecuted” are superior to those of any other low-budget rightwing film to date, especially Richard J. Vialet’s formally playful ‘Scope cinematography, which is only misjudged in its penchant for digital noise in dark scenes. The acting, too, is consistently better than in other films of this genre, thanks to the use of veteran actors like Remar, Davison, Dean Stockwell, and Fred Thompson as opposed to amateurs and soap regulars. But “Persecuted” still feels hopelessly low-rent due to the ludicrousness of its subject matter and a shoddily edited finale full of B-movie staples like slow-motion bullets and a pathos-laden phone call home placed in the midst of the climactic shootout.

“Persecuted” begins with a rather repugnant re-contextualization of a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote—”A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live”—and ends in an office adorned with a large Betsy Ross flag, which has obvious connotations with revolution. It would seem that the filmmakers are calling for a violent uprising. But against what? Given that Lusko couldn’t even manage to envision the contents of the hypothetical bill that would decimate religious freedom in America as we know it, it’s safe to assume that the ideological premise of “Persecuted” is rooted in irrational fear and anger, not a legitimate concern for said freedom. I have no doubt that a decent film could be made about American progressives’ attempts to delegitimize faith-based perspectives in politics, but this is not it. A truly vile piece of reactionary propaganda, “Persecuted” gives Christian conservatives a bad name.