From the pre-opening credit moment when authorities roll out a shrouded body as concerned neighbors look on, it’s clear “The Pastor’s Wife” is a Lifetime movie like momma used to make ’em: Fact-based, trashy and featuring an imperiled young woman. Still, this is an eminently watchable take on the old formula, anchored by Rose McGowan, whose pained expressions each time someone calls her handsome husband a treasure pretty much speak volumes. Mostly, it’s a reminder of what amounts to TV movie law: Slap your wife around in the Deep South, and someone’s gonna wind up on “Nancy Grace.”
Promoted from a berth on Lifetime’s movie channel to the flagship network, the pic stars McGowan as Mary Winkler, the mother of three who shook up her Tennessee town in 2006 by shooting husband Matthew (Michael Shanks), the popular local pastor, in their bedroom.
Only through flashback do we learn about the abuse he allegedly heaped upon her, making the movie as constructed less about whodunnit than why. But with no witnesses and little evidence to validate her story, can she actually make a self-defense plea fly?
If the subject matter is as old as “The Burning Bed,” writer Robert L. Freedman and director Norma Bailey have managed to present Winkler’s tale of woe with a degree of style, including direct-to-camera testimony from other townsfolk that provides a sense of documentary-style authenticity. And while McGowan has a diverse resume, she’s perfectly convincing as the Southern wife who can solemnly drawl of her late husband, “I could never do anything right in his eyes.”
Among the drawbacks is the lack of memorable supporting performances, even within the inevitable courtroom scenes, which feature Martin Cummins as Mary’s lawyer. (Video of the aforementioned Grace is included, by the way, with video of the HLN host pithily referring to Winkler’s case the “Tennessee minister murder mystery.”)
While broadcast networks once went overboard dramatizing such cases, the pendulum has swung far enough in the other direction that devoting a TV movie to this true-crime yarn — as opposed to an episode of “48 Hours,” “Dateline” or a reality show with cheesy reenactments — actually feels like a small luxury, or at least a greasy junk-food meal as opposed to the usual snack.
Besides, the ratings ought to be boffo. What better way could there be for a predominantly female audience to vicariously escape on Saturday night than watching a woman kill her husband?