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A review of "Don Verdean" (2015)

I've written my share of posts about Jared Hess, the director of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, and his work.  Despite the uneven quality of his filmography, I've always admired his sensibilities and I find his movies bizarrely, indescribably captivating.

So I'm more than a little disappointed to find out that Don Verdean, arguably his best movie, has had such an underwhelming reception.  Rotten Tomatoes has it in the 30% range and IMDb pegs it at a 5.3 with a measly 1,700 ratings.  What gives?


Part of the issue may be that Don Verdean is a departure from his previous films.  Hess's usual shtick is to introduce a quirky cast, set them about in a series of loosely-connected nonsensical antics, occasionally inject a gross-out gag, and then have everybody come together for a silly heartwarming ending.  Don Verdean has very little of any of that.

The plot is pretty simple.  Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is a self-taught scholar of religious history who scours the world for biblical artifacts.  He's had a successful, although controversial, career so far, but has recently fallen on hard times.  He lives out of a mobile home and employs a part-time assistant played by Amy Ryan who has a borderline romantic obsession with him.

Rockwell is given a lucrative offer by a pastor played by Danny McBride.  McBride is suffering from competition with another church down the street headed by a former Satanist played by Will Forte.  In order to best Forte's sermons and capture a larger congregation, McBride hopes to wow the public by putting some religious artifacts on display.  So he offers Rockwell a retainer fee to essentially promise first dibs on any new artifacts that Rockwell might find.

Enter Rockwell's Israeli assistant, played by Jermaine Clement.  Clement is the loose cannon slob character to Rockwell's straight-and-narrow snob in the buddy comedy formula.  Clement does a lot of ground work for Rockwell to find, dig out, and transport artifacts, but he's got a much looser sense of morals.

So when Rockwell is backed into a corner and reluctantly fakes the discovery of Goliath's skull, Clement eagerly jumps at the opportunity to milk the fraud for all it's worth - and then proceeds to bungle things up and make everything worse.

There's one montage, one gross-out joke involving a fake gunshot wound, and a handful of silly voices, but make no mistake: this isn't Hess as usual.  It's as straight-forward a movie as he's ever made with very little fluff on the sidelines.  I'm actually kind of in awe at how streamlined the film is - it's almost like somebody took him and his wife aside and said, "Hey, let me explain story structure."

Because the story is much more focused, the humor is much more pronounced and has time to breathe.  Clement is really funny and steals the show, and Rockwell never tries to take it back - he's excellent as the straight man.  Forte, too, is terrific.  Every single scene he's in is amazing and I laughed at almost every line delivery.

The elephant in the room, then, is the religion.  I think this must be the reason people are turning the other way.

Let me be blunt about this.  If you approach the movie with a strict opinion of God one way or another, you'll hate it.  It's easy to hear that a movie involves religion and think that it's trying to promote a way of thinking, but that's not the case at all.  Don Verdean isn't so much a movie about religion as it is a movie about hysteria.  Take it from me, a godless heathen: you can be an atheist and still enjoy it.

Although Don Verdean takes for granted that the Bible is accurate and that all the artifacts Rockwell is searching for are real, it also mocks Forte's and McBride's extremism.  The movie uses charm and humor to explain that faithlessness isn't the problem - greed and amoral ambition are.  It's a critique on religious fervor made by somebody who clearly loves his religion, and I love that it's so honest and sincere about it.

The thing I find ultimately depressing is that if Don Verdean receives so little reaction, then Hess would likely conclude it's not what people want.  I hate the thought of him making such a good movie and then saying, "Welp, guess I'll make Gentleman Broncos 2."  So, if you haven't seen it (you know you haven't), go check out Don Verdean on Netflix and give it a good review.  The man needs positive reinforcement.