'The Grace of Jake' Is Awfully Caught Up in Southern-style Christianity
Because The Grace of Jake has a plain agenda -- it means to proselytize -- it occasionally offends.
The Grace of JakeDirector: Christopher Hicky
Cast: Michael Beck, Lew Temple, Ravi Kapoor
Studio: Indican Pictures
US Release date: 2015-04-24
The Grace of Jake is a movie caught up in Southern religion. And make no mistake: Southern religion, for better or worse, is something you get caught up in. I lived my first ten years near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. I don't remember a lot of it, but to this day I feel an involuntary affinity for as well as aversion to Southern-style Christianity.
These reflexes -- as much a function of movies I've seen as my own imprecise memories -- shape my reaction to The Grace of Jake. It calls two films in particular to mind, Craig Brewer's preposterous Black Snake Moan and Joe Camp's breezy '70s classic Benji. The latter simply because it is an excellent primer on the layout of the rural American small town, with its struggling local businesses, poverty of side streets, and overabundance of porch-sitting gossips.
The former comes due to a shared preoccupation with gospel, blues, and black congregation. Both Black Snake Moan and The Grace of Jake in their own ways deal with a wayward white soul wrangled into the role of parishioner in an African American church. Both also deal with the madness that swells out of the rural southern landscape's vacant, flatland heat. Few who've seen Black Snake Moan will forget the tête-a-tête between Rae (Christina Ricci) and Lazarus (Samuel Jackson). As much as the scene provokes our upset, with Lazarus' felonious imprisonment of Rae, my main takeaway from Black Snake Moan is that both Rae and Lazarus are mad, and that they’ve been driven there by their environs.
The Grace of Jake is much less brazen, but does hold a few elements in common with Black Snake Moan. Like Lazarus, Jake is a blues musician, for instance, and like Lazarus, Jake was once a man of faith but has been coaxed by a tragic past to lose his faith in god. Like Black Snake Moan, too, The Grace of Jake reprises the gospel chestnut "This Little Light of Mine", though maybe this is de rigeur in movies of this sort.
Because The Grace of Jake has a plain agenda, at least part time -- it means to proselytize -- it occasionally offends. Movies with agendas have that tendency. When graceful Jake first arrives in Palestine, Arkansas (pronounced "pal-es-TENE", we’re reminded), he first encounters a motel owner, Maurice (Ravi Kapoor), who’s a variant embodiment of Rae with his overactive sexual fixation on this fascinating new arrival. Maurice is an Indian immigrant who repeatedly plies Jake with come-ons and entreaties, and seems quite evidently to have a driving homosexual desire he’s yet to confront.
I have always found it curious that overtly religious movies tend to take these wild potshots at excessive lust. They never seem to get it quite right. Here we have the motel owner, who "minces" in the early reels as he performs this caricature of a gay Indian immigrant. Later, when Jakes asks what Maurice wanted to be when he grew up, he replies, "Oh, I wanted to be gay, and running a shady motel in the Bible Belt. And maybe raise some cattle." The moment comes across as a breaking of the fourth wall, almost like a note to themselves the writers added during the composition process and then forgot to remove.
The other character Jake meets early is a tangential type of caricature, a ridiculously menacing, chaw-chompin' redneck who gatekeeps Jake's arrival into Palestine. This guy kicks Jake's tires and spits in his general direction and then later brandishes a shotgun in his face. I refer here to my memories of Texas: I knew quite a few aspiring rednecks in those days when my parents wouldn't even let me use sticks for pistols. Those kids were a lot more aware of the dangers of pointing a shotgun in someone's face than I was. So again, here, we are dealing with caricatures.
Having said all this, I liked quite a few things about The Grace of Jake. It's a sincere picture, with a lot of interesting, ambitious writing that these blips mostly punctuate. You sense the struggle in this movie. Jake arrives in Palestine and wins over the local congregation with his exquisite renditions of gospel standards and home-written testimonials -- but his performances, though good, don’t captivate the home audience in equal measure to the Spielberg stares being directed at him from the black congregation on screen. We learn Maurice's bizarre love for Jake may be less a symptom of religious homophobia than screenwriting conceit as everyone else becomes inexplicably taken with Jake too. This is fun to track, as is the love quintangle that develops as Jake, mystically transfixing to the ladies as well as the gentlemen, obliviously draws the attractions of two local women and then the jealous attention of their town courtiers.
I sense a central struggle in The Grace of Jake is a matter of sophomore filmmaking combined with true talent and sentiment. I found its potboiler elements enjoyable, but hope the junior efforts of these filmmakers will make a better case before I properly convert to the Christian faith.
One thing I did notice, though, is the core inactivated subplot of this movie: Jake is coming to Palestine in the role of hitman, though it’s never made clear who hired him. He is meant to take the life of a local crop-duster who happens to be his father, and a competing courtier to one of the two women he winds up dating. The town’s failing church reports rumors of the plane spraying the town in place of the crops, and we are told the church steeple had been struck by a crop-dusting plane. In fact, this rumor is said to be the seed that sowed the downfall of the church, and then the congregation. Even at the end of the movie, when the romantic peccadillos and the other small-town intrigues are resolved, this mystery is left to linger.