Sony // 2011 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 30th, 2011
The story of one woman's struggle with faith.
"Saved from what?"
Corinne (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air) has had religion in her life for a very long time, but it didn't mean very much in her formative years. During her childhood, religion was a confusing ritual of sorts. During her teenage years, church was the place where she hung out with her boyfriend/future husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project). Still, by the time Corinne gets around to getting baptized and really plugging into her church, she's a grown woman with three children. Higher Ground tells the story of her complex relationship with the church, her struggles with faith, her sometimes difficult relationship with her husband, her turbulent relationship with her very secular sister Kathleen (Donna Murphy, The Fountain), and her close bond with a friend (Dagmara Domincyzk, Kinsey).
Higher Ground is a film too specific, truthful, and aimless to be anything less than a true story. It's based on Carolyn S. Briggs' book This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, and features a screenplay co-written by Briggs. In many beautifully-captured scenes, the film paints a surprisingly tender portrait of a unique segment of Christianity. It neither condemns nor extols this distinctive community, instead simply examining its strengths and weaknesses as Corinne begins the process of questioning certain aspects of her faith. This isn't a story about someone discovering that their faith is built on lies. It's a story about someone discovering their faith is built on a murky blend of absolute lies, undeniable truths, and many combinations of the two in-between.
Higher Ground marks the directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga, who reveals herself as a smart, observant director who generally adopts a "fly-on-the-wall" approach to the material. Like Robert Altman, she often generates scenes which feel as if they've been discovered rather than created, though a few moments of awkward comedy feel a little forced (particularly a goofy encounter with a police officer). More than anything, it reminded me of another 2011 directorial debut: Sean Durkin's compelling Martha Marcy May Marlene, which takes a close look at a considerably darker tight-knit community. Both films tend to indulge in non-linear flourishes on occasion, both feature John Hawkes in a crucial supporting role and both are excellent movies which are still slightly less than the sum of their parts.
While I would certainly urge you to check out Higher Ground, it's a film which only achieves greatness in specific scenes. Many of these scenes are scattered throughout, but the longer arc somehow feels a little incomplete. The quiet crumbling of Corinne's faith is well-played by Farmiga, but the screenplay doesn't quite provide us with enough information on how this transition comes about. At the beginning, her relationship with God is complicated. At the end, many things have shifted, but it's still complicated. The film takes an admirably moderate path, but I wish Farmiga and Briggs had been able to elaborate a little more on how the character gets from point A- to point B+.
Still, it's the pitch-perfect vignettes that linger with you and define the movie. In one sequence, Corinne decides to share what's on her heart with the congregation (a common practice in many churches, particularly smaller churches). Her moment of sharing quietly transforms into a moment of teaching, and after a while the pastor gently cuts her off. Later, Corinne is approached by an older woman, who smiles and says, "You know, you were getting awfully close to preaching. Be careful about that. We don't want it to seem like we're trying to teach the men." It's one of several quietly judgmental admonishments Corinne receives over the course of the film, and these interactions begin to weigh her spirit down after a while. Higher Ground is a film which understands that religion can be both liberating and debilitating, equally capable of delivering genuine salvation and destruction (at least on a basic human level; I'll leave the larger questions of heaven and hell for the theologians to battle out). The film captures both the joyful freedom and the suffocating rigidity that Evangelical Christianity is capable of achieving.
As someone raised in a conservative Christian home, I found it difficult to watch the film without recalling things from my past. There were so many moments which seemed eerily familiar, and at various points it managed to stir memories of both warmth and horror. In Corinne's church, questions are encouraged as long as the person believes the correct answer can be found in the Bible. However, start questioning those answers, and you'll quickly be informed that your soul is in great peril. It's a world which encourages thoughtfulness, exploration, and freedom within the rather confined space it has created. It's essential you recognize the freedom you have in Christ, because on earth you're going to be trapped in a religion that grows tighter as your questions grow larger. Higher Ground understands why such barbed security can be unlivable for some and essential for others. There are people who say they would be a wreck without their faith. Such people are probably correct, but is it God which sustains them, or the stern-yet-supportive community they've plugged themselves into? That's the sort of nagging question the film thoughtfully shines a light on during its strongest moments.
Higher Ground (Blu-ray) has received a reasonably solid 1.85:1/1080p transfer which accurately preserves Farmiga's intentions. The film's lengthy flashback sequence which takes place during the first act is quite soft; almost gratingly so at times (using softness to imply a bygone era started getting old a long time ago). However, the bulk of the film is crisp, clean, and impressively detailed; the movie isn't exactly an eye-popping spectacle but it does capture a distinctive sense of place. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track gets the job done nicely, with clean dialogue and unobtrusive sound design coming through with clarity. The only issue is the song that plays over the end credits, which hits a couple of alarmingly distorted notes. Supplements include a commentary with Farmiga, actor Joshua Leonard, and producer Renn Hawkey; a standard making-of featurette; some deleted/extended/alternate scenes; a very short production diary; even shorter outtakes; a trailer, BD-Live, and a DVD Copy.
Higher Ground doesn't quite live up to its considerable potential, but it's nonetheless a rewarding, thoughtful film which introduces Farmiga as a promising talent behind the camera.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Extended/Deleted Scenes
* Production Diary
* DVD Copy
* Official Site