It’s rare to see an actor’s screen persona complete disappear when playing a role but that’s what Jessica Chastain achieves in this potentially Oscar-winning performance as the wife of television evangelist fraudster Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Responsible much of the time for holding Bakker together when he was falling apart, backing diversity at a time when it was anathema to any organised religion, although a fool for love and with an appetite for self-deception that would have floored a rhinoceros.
A fascinating docu-drama into how an opportunistic couple became the fatted calves their religion deplored. The movie doesn’t delve too deeply into the fund-raising activities of the couple any more than The Two Popes spent time wondering who funded the Vatican. Instead, it’s a character-driven study. There’s no doubt Bakker and Faye delivered on the motivational front to their legions (20 million subscribers at their peak), preaching about God’s love rather his downside of Hell and damnation. The fact that Faye got to sing and become an adored television personality was the least of it.
In keeping with a lot of modern biopics, it races through the years, new characters introduced with screen titles as we move from the trudge of freelance missionaries to low-grade television performers until, at Faye’s instigation, they set up their own television station. However big the bucks that roll in, it’s never enough, Bakker constantly in hock and coming up with more grandiose schemes to bankroll his grandiose schemes. It’s hard to say how much they actually achieved, since the film skips over this until Bakker is brought up on major fraud charges.
Instead what we have is a four-ring circus, Faye happily getting richer but missing out on the expected sex life that goes with it, excoriated for nearly having an affair, Bakker playing fast and loose with male and female but his transgressions not coming to light until much later, rival preaching kingpin Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) stitching them up when they fall, and Faye’s tight-permed thin-lipped mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) herself a “fallen woman.”
Although falling into the “Stand By Your Man” cateogory, Faye’s continued effervescence in the face of mounting scandal is astonishing, lack of fear of male hierarchy (calling Falwell by his Christian name instead of his title, going against inbred conservative politics) and her genuine desire to help those eviscerated by the world, namely AIDS victims, would have set her up almost for saintood had the pillar on which she depended not been made entirely of salt.
The movie is a fascinating insight into how slick evangelism parts people from their bucks, almost a masterclass in maximizing frailty and playing the victim – more money rolls in when they confess infidelity and weakness than when playing superheroic good guys. Forget the hypocrisy with which it paints the television evangelist and the viewers (i.e. suckers) keeping the enterprise afloat, the Catholic church made a mint from its parishioners, anybody who sought comfort in religion had something wrong with them as was pointed out to Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby.
As I knew nothing about any of the background and was only vaguely familiar with the real-life characters, I thought it was superb, but mostly through the acting. I have rarely seen an actor play vulnerability so well without an eye to self-pity. It’s ironic of course that Faye is so in favour of love when she is denied it first by her mother and then by her husband. Only an adoring wife would fail to see the weasely character she married.
Chastain transitions from giggly teenager, too enraptured by passion, to the self-possessed puppet-master and from thence to the all-engulfing stardom to which they have opposite responses, he overwhelmed by being found out, she believing every word he says and living the dream as if she was the original Kardashian. Garfield channels inner entitlement, entirely convincing as the ultimate salesman with the ultimate item to sell to a more than willing set of loyal customers, happy to sacrifice his wife’s shame at the altar of mammon while hiding his own indiscretions. But he’s also the preacher as businessman, learning from his predecessors, planning to out-do his rivals, praying that he can keep the devil at bay.
And that’s not forgetting an excellent turn by Cherry Jones as the repressed mother who would have been disowned by her own church except they had no one else to play the piano, fearful but never tearful, her only criminal act holding on to a cherished fur coat that should have been surrendered to the law. Vincent D’Onofrio relishes playing the sanctimonious thug, wooed by politicians, kowtowed-to by preacher underlings, with a whole pile of machinations up his sleeve.
Chastain’s performance belongs to those larger-than-life real-life characters imbued by Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, 2000) and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy, 2015) who turned their fragility on its head and fully deserves her Oscar nomination. A fascinating film with terrific performances, and enjoyable with it.