If I were writing this review for the Fox News Channel, I'd say that the War on Christmas has now become the War on Christianity. What is it about American evangelicals that makes belief such a fat, inviting target for urbanites, intellectuals, and Europeans? Is every church in our country really run by Elmer Gantry? English director James March (Wisconsin Death Trip) here joins up with Milo Addica, co-writer of the wildly overrated Monster's Ball, and the results show that the small minds are on the wrong side of the camera.
Gael García Bernal plays the bastard son of now-reformed preacher man William Hurt, married with two teen children—the obedient musician son (L.I.E.'s Paul Dano, doing his own guitar and singing) and the underappreciated, sexually ripe 16-year-old daughter (Pell James). Fresh out of the Navy, Bernal evidently wants a reconciliation with his Texas daddy, who rebuffs him outside his suburban church. Fine, if that avenue of reconciliation won't work, how about seducing the daughter? Incest as vengeance—that's got to be in the Bible someplace, right?
Hurt's cast as a hypocrite who must be humbled before God, and eventually this Baptist pastor does admit to the sin of "church pride." After playing such a bizarrely endearing mook-sociopath in A History of Violence, he deserves a much bigger role here. He looms over the diminutive Bernal, and his moral conflicts are larger, too. Less interesting to watch is Bernal's implacable stranger, whose agenda is hidden—but hardly unpredictable—until the end. Since the girl knows nothing about him except that he's handsome and attentive, they enjoy an idyllic romance by golden streams with the air sun-gauzed by swarming mayflies. For her, as for Sissy Spacek in Badlands, it's the kind of paradise where everyone pretends they haven't eaten the apple. Before Marsh finally smites this Eden, you hear the approaching bulldozer—which he confuses with irony—from far away.