Alex and Stephen Kendrick are the Joel and Ethan Coen of the Christian movie scene. The brothers made a name for themselves with the independent faith-based drama Facing the Giants in 2006, then scored two more indie successes, 2008’s Fireproof (starring Kirk Cameron) and 2011’s Courageous. Each time, they hit the bullseye with the target audience. Their latest, War Room, is something of a graduation into the big leagues, as it’s being released under Sony Pictures’ Affirm Films banner. Although the Kendricks have taken a step up, their work remains as earnest and religious as ever. They clearly have no intention of abandoning their mission just because they have a bigger budget. War Room doesn’t provide anything particularly new, but it thankfully doesn’t throw in any of the uncomfortable secular paranoia that made faith-based films like God’s Not Dead and Do You Believe? so off-putting to non-Evangelicals. This is simply a nice story told with great sincerity.
Karen Abercrombie plays Miss Clara, an elderly woman who intends to sell the home she has lived in for decades. Her real estate agent is Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla C. Shirer). It quickly becomes clear that Elizabeth is having extreme marital conflict with her husband, a pharmaceutical rep named Tony (T.C. Stallings). They argue over finances, his workaholic ways, and his general disinterest in their young daughter’s activities. Miss Clara suggests that Elizabeth empty out her closet and turn it into a “war room” – a place where she can launch a prayer strategy designed to repair her marriage. After some initial skepticism, she complies, and before long, things start to improve. Once Tony discovers what she’s been doing, he begins praying in the war room, too.
There are certain things one expects from a faith-based film, and War Room has most of them. There are scenes where characters stop to deliver impromptu sermons. There are almost humorously heavy-handed and/or didactic moments, such as a bizarre scene in which Miss Clara fends off a would-be mugger simply by invoking the name of Jesus. And, of course, there’s a climactic scene set at a double-dutch jump rope contest. (Okay, that last one isn’t typical, but I swear, it really is here.) There is nothing subtle about this movie. It’s designed to send a message that, especially in marriage, prayer is something that helps couples stay on a loving path.
Even if it does have a fair amount of stilted drama, War Room frequently manages to overcome it. Much of this is due to the performances. There’s a scene where Elizabeth breaks down and prays to God, then roams around her house, and onto the back porch, yelling at the devil to stay away. Now, a scene like that could come off as very corny, and in a way, it is. But Shirer performs the speech with so much raw conviction that it’s tough not to buy into it anyway. If you’ve ever had a moment in life where you felt lost, prayed for direction, then somehow sensed that your plea had been heard, a scene such as this will ring a bell, even if you didn’t actually start screaming at Satan. Shirer is very good, as is Stallings, who convincingly conveys the idea that Tony becomes aware of his failings as a husband and father, then decides it is time to change. The real star, however, is Abercrombie, who brings an authentic sense of seen-it-all wisdom to Miss Clara. We can believe that she would have influence over Elizabeth. The actress also provides War Room with some warm humor in several scenes designed to show how the character embraces joy in life.
Whether you’re a person of faith or not, War Room contains some surprisingly astute advice for fighting couples. One of Miss Clara’s big messages is that your spouse is not your enemy, and that marriages break up when people begin viewing their husbands or wives that way. She encourages Elizabeth (who later encourages Tony) to view the problem itself as the enemy, one that requires a team to defeat. Scene by scene, the movie shows Elizabeth and Tony actively trying to apply that concept. The religious message is certainly front and center, but the portrait of two people trying to salvage a marriage in crisis helps give War Room a little broader appeal.
At two hours, the movie is a bit too long, and there are certainly a few moments where the Kendricks pound their message into the audience’s collective head harder than they perhaps need to. But in a time when many faith-based films are suggesting that academia, the government, and medical professionals are waging an all-out war against Christianity, it’s nice to see a story that takes a simpler, more everyday approach. War Room focuses on character and theme rather than on conspiracy theories, and it sees no need to arbitrarily toss in a grand third-act miracle or dramatic salvation. That makes it one of the more entertaining and relatable faith-based films to hit the big screen in recent times.