Following on the heels of last year’s “The Omega Code” and a renewed fervor of religious fundamentalism, the Mormon-themed “God’s Army” emerges as an earnest and good-humored entry in the sub-genre of self-distributed films centered on religious dogma. A niche item if there ever was one, pic will undoubtedly meet with its warmest reception in the local Utah markets where it has been playing for the last several weeks. Scheduled nationwide rollout this summer seems a more optimistic and potentially dubious prospect, though unknowing auds who stumble in will find themselves pleasantly surprised by the film’s gentle approach.
Writer-producer-director Richard Dutcher seems to have figured out that there are few rewards to be had from shoving religious doctrine down paying viewers throats, particularly with a religion as relatively obscure as Mormonism. Almost all prior films of this ilk (such as the ones produced by the Billy Graham Crusade in the 1980s) have failed to attract moviegoers outside of devout churchgoers, and, if “God’s Army” doesn’t seem likely to reverse the trend, it at least lacks the insular quality that makes you feel the film is preaching to the converted only.
Still, “God’s Army” is about Mormon missionaries, and what you see is what you get. Dutcher stars as Marcus Dalton, one of a Los Angeles-based group that goes door-to-door spreading the gospel and trying to convert people to the Mormon faith — on the streets of Hollywood, no less. These missionaries (or Elders, as they call themselves) are youths from across the country who have volunteered two years of their lives to the Mormon cause; at age 29, Elder Dalton is by far the oldest.
Known affectionately as “Pops,” Dalton is tenacious, demanding, prickly and wise. When a new batch of recruits arrives, shy Kansas native Elder Allen (Matthew Brown) becomes Pops’ latest protege.Although “God’s Army” acknowledges the difficulty of performing religious work in today’s world, it allows contradictory voices to be heard. Even as the Elders reach out to multi-ethnic Angelenos, there is dissent and disbelief within the Mormon Church itself. Pops conveniently appears whenever necessary to set the record straight and restore the church’s omniscience, but to Dutcher’s credit he avoids making too neat and moralistic a package out of what is, essentially, a propaganda film.
Dramatically, pic is a much shakier proposition. With the exception of Pops, none of the missionaries develops a distinct personality, while the performances (a mixture of professional actors and Mormons) are sensitive, but one-note. Over-length is a problem, as is the film’s rigorously unimaginative fish-out-of-water scenario, in which Elder Allen is all-but-ready to board the first bus out of town until he finally falls under Pops’ thrall.
More problematically, Dutcher remains so reticent about his intended message that it is ultimately impossible to discern any sense of purpose from the film. Nor do we develop any useful knowledge about specific Mormon beliefs.
Dutcher seems to expect us to be satisfied merely by the vague notion that the Mormons are a “chosen” people, but in subverting our expectation of fire and brimstone theatrics, he may have created the first overtly religious movie that isn’t imperious enough.