When watching The Revival, the feature length directorial debut of Jennifer Gerber, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re watching a gay twist on Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, only this time told from the preacher’s perspective. Adapted from Samuel Bret Williams’ 2010 play (the screenplay was written by Williams himself), The Revival centres on southern baptist preacher Eli (David Rysdahl), who has recently returned to his hometown to take over the family church.
The church was already struggling before he lead the sermons – now that a man as introspective as him is leading them, the congregation is dwindling even further. To raise money to keep the church open, Eli and board member Trevor (Raymond McAnally) agree to host a revival event at $6 a ticket, create some positive publicity – and hopefully see Eli become comfortable in his own skin blessing the audience with the Lord’s words. Naturally, things don’t quite go to plan; at a church potluck, he meets a homeless man named Daniel (Zachary Booth), who immediately breaks past Eli’s defences by complimenting his hands.
Eli has a pregnant wife at home, and spends his days extolling the virtues of prayer – yet his hidden sexual desires come to the fore after spending time with Daniel, going so far as to charitably put him up in a log cabin he owns outside the town. As Eli aims to become the preacher the church needs him to be in order to remain open, he is left with a crisis of faith, and an increasing realisation that he can no longer keep his feelings buried inside.
It isn’t just the character names (and in the terms of Eli, a character-defining profession) that correlate with the two central characters in There Will Be Blood. David Rysdahl largely appears to be channeling Paul Dano throughout Gerber’s film, specifically in the sermon sequences, when the character’s own awkwardness is overshadowed by a need to showboat in front of the crowd – as opposed to speaking out to praise the lord. It’s a more subtle performance than Dano gives for Paul Thomas Anderson, but it still feels like Rysdahl has studied that actor’s method of performance to try and create a conflicted pastor every bit the equal to that earlier role.
However, Gerber’s film is more than just a contemporary, LGBT spin on Paul Thomas Anderson’s period classic. It’s portrayal of religious conservatism in southern states, and the underlying homophobia that is forever simmering in the background, feels startlingly relevant today – especially in a country where the Vice President is a known strict Christian with some of the most alarming anti-gay views from anybody who has ever held such high command on the country. The casual insidiousness of the sermons on the radio is disturbing enough, but when heard moments after we see passionate sex scenes between two men, they become all the more horrifying. After all, we know that it isn’t just the characters in the film that have to put up with these opinions given widespread prominence across the media of southern states.
The Revival is a fascinating character study that feels undeniably prescient in the Trump/Pence era. Less a self-acceptance narrative, and more of an exploration of one man’s crisis of faith, Samuel Bret Williams’ screenplay avoids giving easy resolutions to the character’s problems – making for a more disturbing and unrelentingly harrowing viewing experience. It may bare multiple superficial comparisons to an earlier masterpiece, but while The Revival isn’t in the same league as that film, it manages to pack a punch entirely of its own making.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures