April 21, 2011 by abbyo
I’ve written about Dennis W. Ho’s short documentary “Subway Preacher” briefly before, in my overall review of the True/False film festival back in March. I didn’t get to write much in-depth about the film, which is an interesting piece of cinema verite, so this week I’m doing a full review. Like George Ratliff’s movie “Hell House,” “Subway Preacher” is an interesting, frustrating and strangely entertaining look into the lives of a group of right-wing Christian fundamentalists who have clearly got some other issues they need to tackle in addition to religion.
The movie’s focal point is Brian Kelly, a man who’s given up his job to go into ministry full time. Now, when I say “go into ministry,” I don’t mean go to a theological seminary, or becoming a missionary. Brian is the subway preacher of the movie’s title. He and the members of his pitiful congregation, spend hours and hours every day in the New York City subway, handing out religious pamphlets, praying loudly, and threatening hellfire for heathens. Brian’s wife, Rose, dutifully helps him with his work, meaning that the couple has no income. During the course of the film, Brian starts having feelings for Kaitlin, a Columbia grad student and member of his flock. Discord between Brian, Rose and his ministry partner Shawn follow as a result.
Ho pulls no punches here. He presents Brian as a wholly unlikeable, off-putting character and his congregation as a bunch of enthusiastic but misguided souls. Brian’s manipulative. He exploits Shawn. He verbally abuses Rose. He proudly takes photos with “born again” Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz. But through all of this he still truly believes he is doing God’s work, and shouts it at the top of his lungs. An exchange Kaitlin has with an irritated subway commuter as Brian spouts his dogma in the background says it best:
Man: Is he (Brian) going to hell?
Kaitlin: No, he’s saved. He isn’t going to hell.
Man: Then how bad could (hell) be?
With representatives like Brian around, it’s no wonder people get turned off by Christianity.
As much as I’d like to get on my high horse about the film’s unfortunate but true “Christians-as-wackjobs” portrayal of Brian and his team, my goal here, first and foremost, is to evaluate “Subway Preacher” as a movie. And it’s a really good movie. Ho gets creative with his camera, setting up very cinematic shots of characters, and creative transitional montages of subway scenes. The drama between Brian, Rose, Kaitlin and Shawn is heartbreaking. You never get the sense that characters are exaggerating, or are reacting to the camera, with theexception of Brian—it could be argued that his behavior
during the whole film (his pursuit of Kaitlin, his rejection of his wife) is a giant reaction to Ho’s presence.
Amidst all the drama, “Subway Preacher” really serves to show the ironic life and hypocrisies of people with extreme beliefs. Brian’s fundamental theology ought to eliminate divorce from Rose as an option. But yet, Brian finds a way to justify it to himself through verbally abusing her and calling her a rebellious woman when she sticks up for herself, though it’s clear she loves him. Brian and Kaitlin both claim they’re “on fire for God,” yet choose to show that fire by scaring away anyone they might potentially convert. Kaitlin actually makes a good point earlier in the film that she feels she has blood on her hands every time she chooses not to evangelize to someone, the point being that she’s keeping them from Heaven by not telling them about Jesus. But her particular brand of evangelism does more harm than good—those whose souls she’s concerned for might be better off if she didn’t say anything at all.
“Subway Preacher” is a curious slice-of-life movie that looks closely at the existence and beliefs of people most of us go out of our way to ignore. It’s not necessarily revealing or surprising, but there’s a surprising wealth of drama that provides entertaining, sympathetic characters and an engaging story. Director Dennis W. Ho has made a creative, thoughtful movie that’s as easy to laugh at as it can be cringe-inducing.