by Ken Bakely
Joshua Marston directs Come Sunday with an unassuming familiarity. He guides the story without flourish or excessive pointing, birds-eyeing the proceedings with a foreknowledge of every event. This allows us to watch the actors take up the material efficiently, but it’s also a sign of a scripting problem that reveals itself as film unravels. When Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the beloved pastor of an evangelical megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, begins contradicting the denominational consensus of heaven and hell, and argues that all souls are ultimately reconciled by God, he starts a massive whirlwind. Sparked by the suicide of his imprisoned Uncle Quincy (Danny Glover), and cemented by news clips of the then-ongoing Rwandan Genocide, Carlton voices his concerns before a shocked congregation. How, he asks, could a benevolent, omnipotent deity see suffering of all varieties across humanity, and allow wayward souls to be eternally punished, even if it’s through no fault of their own? He asserts that this belief comes from a misreading of the Bible, affecting the modern Christian view of God.
Carlton faces tremendous backlash, including dwindling church membership; public reprimands from his mentor, Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen); and the threat of excommunication. Come Sunday then narrows its focus from the implications of his spiritual fork in the road, and generalizes its structure. It falls victim to the episodic tropes of of biopics about individual struggle. It’s scene after scene of criticism, abandonment by his colleagues, and further drops into unpopularity, while the solutions which will lead him down an eventual new path in his life rise in the background. This familiarity is baffling when the rest of the movie’s mounting is taken into consideration. Marston presents central subjects of incredible weight – stark traditional teachings contrasted against the the difficult question of evil – with keen thoughtfulness. Early conversations between Carlton and Oral Roberts are fascinating not only because of committed performances from Ejiofor and Sheen, but also because they are written as multidimensional characters to begin with. They are in a thick push-pull debate of the unprovable.
Contrary to the recent spill of faith-based films, Come Sunday steadfastly avoids ideological sidetracking. But eventually, this seems to be more an unintentional effect of indecisiveness than the even-handedness that Marston starts things off with. It’s all so safe that it becomes underwhelming. This is a far more complicated and multifaceted story than a uniform biopic treatment allows for. Watching Ejiofor in any context is riveting, as his supercharged-yet-perceptive interpretation rocks the philosophical core of the character’s spiritual rattling. His performance is bent towards the most unambiguous self-vulnerability in every moment. Particularly powerful is the juxtaposition of his resolve as he continues preaching universal reconciliation as congregants file out in disgust, against the smallness he feels as Henry (Jason Segel), his longtime assistant and advisor, announces that he’s no longer able to work with someone of his views. Ejiofor is a sign of the movie this could have been, unafraid of pushing through the landscape’s rollicking scope or shifting tides of Carlton’s fortunes.
The character winds up starting his own church, and that’s where the real Carlton Pearson remains today. The film ends by depicting the ebullient, confident style that marked his initial rise within the evangelical movement, with Marston ironically pointing out that such outspokenness is also what ended his relationship with it. These grace notes serve as thought-provoking hits in an isolated way, but they don’t solve the underlying issues of Come Sunday’s rigidness. It’s much more inclined to show instead of tell. While there’s liveliness by the nature of its plot, it’s unsurprising to learn that the film is based off a an of This American Life. Such workmanlike, narrative spelling-out is necessary for a radio retelling, but with the full arsenal of the realms of visual fictionalizing at Marston’s disposal, and two hours to do it, things end up falling a little too flat.