Great performances cannot overcome a bland, distanced take on the most significant Evangelical scandal in U.S. history.
Have you ever spoken to a friend who was tangentially involved in a big event? They know the players, they saw some of it go down, but they’re missing pieces of information. They lack the perspective of someone directly involved and the insights that come with that. That’s the experience of watching The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) certainly is a fascinating character in her own right. Chastain imbues her with deep reservoirs of longing that are eternally in conflict with a faith that teaches women to be quiet and accepting. The script makes her a sort of mix of mobster wife—content to live off the largesse of her husband’s endeavors while looking the other way—and a true believer in her marriage, their mission, and herself.
Unfortunately, the film feels less interested in the ambitious, sexual, and religious Tammy Faye than the story she lived her life adjacent to, at least in the world of the film. Sure, Abe Sylvia‘s script dabbles in the knots she twists herself into to justify her contradictions. It never, however, goes deeper, its focus too easily pulled by the shenanigans of her husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield).
Garfield is quite good at authoring Bakker. While off-putting at first, the performance gains power as it goes. You can recognize that what seems at first glance to be an empty imitation has plenty of thought behind it. Bakker was a fundamentally empty man, gifted at salesmanship but utterly devoid of a core. By giving a whimpering, self-obsessed impression of the con artist of God, Garfield finds a way into a man who was always barely two-dimensional.
There’s so much grist for the mill suggested by Eyes. The way the evangelical movement becomes a fundraising arm of the Republican Party. How Bakker’s rejection of the ugly Christian tradition of congregants thinking of themselves as ungrateful worms tainted by original sin quickly led to an even more hideous perversion of the Word, prosperity theology. The Church’s kneejerk distaste for women. Whether Tammy Faye’s outreach to marginalized groups—queer people and individuals with AIDS especially—was pure altruism, yet another act of self-promotion, a knowing dig at her husband, or some combination therein.
By holding the corruption of Bakker’s ministry at a distance, Eyes feels as empty as [Andrew] Garfield’s Jim Bakker.
And yet, The Eyes of Tammy Faye remains an unsatisfying viewing experience, one unhelped by Director Michael Showalter’s rather visually uninteresting approach to the material.
It never feels honest about Tammy Faye’s role in the Praise the Lord Network. In absolving her of responsibility, the movie ends up making Tammy Faye seems, well, dumb. Chastain’s performance is at odds with that mission. Moreover, it makes for an uninteresting central character. If Tammy Faye was as divorced from everything as the movie suggests, why should we bother following her perspective? By eschewing moral complexity, Eyes ends up making the whole endeavor as bland as dry toast.
The observations it offers—that the modern Evangelical movement is motivated by greed and power-lust and filled to the brim with backbiting—are not particularly new. As much fun as it is to see Vincent D’Onofrio give purring life to Jerry Falwell’s endless reservoirs of self-satisfaction, there’s no unique insight to pick from those bones. By holding the corruption of Bakker’s ministry at a distance while simultaneously refusing to make Tammy Faye’s struggles the central focus, Eyes feels as empty as Garfield’s Jim.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye are now being dabbed by a kleenex in theatres everywhere.