Day of Defense

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As the single worst Mormon-themed movie so far — a record that I hope stands for a long time — “Day of Defense” should be considered an embarrassment not just to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but to film-goers in general. In fact, even non-film-goers — even obscure humans who have never set foot in a movie theater — ought to be dismayed that a movie of this caliber was created by their fellow man. A national day of mourning ought to be set aside, and then there ought to be mass suicides.

Sorry, I go a little too far in my hyperbole sometimes. But the movie is bad. Based on an unworkable premise, written with an irredeemably bad ear for dialogue, enacted by seemingly untalented performers, and shot in many too-dark rooms on cheap-looking digital video, this is a film of astounding badness. It is jaw-droppingly, paralyzingly, laughably bad. It ranks not just as the worst Mormon film ever, but as one of the two or three worst films I’ve seen all year. And I saw “From Justin to Kelly”!

It is based on a book by A. Melvin McDonald that uses a courtroom setting to present a series of basic arguments and refutations regarding LDS doctrine. Someone says, “Well, what about THIS apparent contradiction,” and the Mormon replies, “It can be explained THIS way,” and so on, eventually “proving” the LDS Church is true. Missionaries like it because it helps them with the sort of discussions they get involved in on a daily basis.

Well, someone decided to expand this plot-free book into a movie. This meant either continuing to exist without a plot, or coming up with one. The problem is, how do you arrange to have two Mormon missionaries on the stand in a United States courtroom, charged, essentially, with believing a religion whose doctrines are false? In real life, in the real United States, such a trial could not occur, as there is no such thing as a doctrine so untrue that it is against the law to believe it. The book is fine as a rhetorical exercise, but to try to work it into a story set in modern-day America? Impossible.

Yet the film tries to do just that, putting two missionaries — stubborn, road-weary Elder Burke (John Foss) and young, inexperienced Elder Davis (Allan Groves) — in a little picket-fenced town called Marysville. To proselytize here requires a license, and to get a license, you have to prove to the Christian Town Council — a Legion of Doom-style board consisting of ministers from the five accepted local religions, dressed at all times in their preaching costumes — that you represent a Christian faith. (Heaven help the Jew in Marysville!) The CTC says Mormons aren’t Christians; hence, no license, and the missionaries have to get out of town.

But not so fast. The town judge, a woman who I believe may be an android, thinks it would be interesting to run a test case on the CTC’s rules. (She’s only been judge there a month, and already the locals don’t cotton to her way of doing things.) JudgeBot instructs the district attorney, James Radner (Brooks Utley), to prosecute the missionaries, and public defender Thomas Bryant (Andrew Lenz) to defend them — not on charges of preaching without a license, mind you, but of not being Christian.

Somehow, Radner and Bryant — lifelong friends whose families have dinner together each week — made it through law school and passed the bar exam without ever realizing that being non-Christian is not against the law in the United States. At no point in this film is the First Amendment invoked, mentioned or referred to.

So you can see how already I am having trouble with the movie, when I can’t even accept its basic premise as being remotely plausible. In a backwoods town 50 years ago? Maybe. MAYBE. But in 2003 in a town that, albeit small, has cops, a judge, indoor plumbing and what appears to be a normal level of sophistication and intelligence among its townspeople? No. This trial simply couldn’t happen in the real world. (Oh, I forgot to mention: This is a JURY trial, too, composed of locals, even though it’s well-established that the locals hate Mormons, making them the least impartial jury in recent memory.)

So somehow, the trial happens. Radner lets the town’s pastors and ministers grill the missionaries for a day, except the missionaries aren’t really allowed to defend themselves, making the film’s title a bit of a misnomer. They just have to listen while the prosecution cites one scripture after another to demonstrate that Mormon doctrine is false. Elder Davis puts on his defeated, uncomfortable face, while Elder Burke remains stoic. They then have a week to prepare their defense. I don’t know why a lawyer is even necessary; Bryant is certainly no use assisting them in the organization and explanation of their beliefs, since he thinks Mormons are as wrong as everyone else in town does.

So the film’s plugging away, slowly and dully. The acting is uniformly flat and unconvincing, with many awkward, silent pauses in the dialogue. A lot of Peter Breinholt songs play on the soundtrack while the missionaries and Bryant talk and try to convert each other. The elders try to ingratiate themselves among the townspeople, who throw rocks at them. (Where is this strange, magical American town where EVERY SINGLE CITIZEN is THIS passionate about religion?) A local tramp (Lillith Fields) commits vague, unsexy acts of flirtation with Elder Davis. It is all tedious and poorly acted and awful, and you think it can’t get any worse.

And then — and this is really something special, some kind of hell-spawned miracle — somehow, the film GETS WORSE! Yes! A major plot event occurs that causes the bottom to drop out altogether, quality-wise. I won’t spoil it for you*, but suffice it to say that it’s really, really funny and isn’t supposed to be. At that point, the film abandons all hope of salvaging itself. It is lost forever to the realm of bad filmmaking. We loved it, we tried to help it, but it had its free agency, and it chose darkness.

What amuses me most about “Day of Defense,” which was directed by first-timer Adam Lawson, is that, despite being made by LDS people about LDS missionaries, it exhibits an alarming lack of knowledge of how LDS missionaries work. Missionaries haven’t been in Marysville in a while, yet the elders already have an apartment there, waiting for them. (Evidently the mission has been paying rent on an empty flat all this time.) And there’s no local LDS ward or branch, which means the elders wouldn’t have been sent there anyway: They’d have been sent to wherever the nearest congregation was and simply included Marysville in their working area. (Maybe they’re living in Marysville but covering a neighboring town, too, where the local ward is. But in that case, they’d need a car, or at least bikes, and they have neither.) And how did the mission office not know about Marysville’s anti-preaching law? They’re paying for an apartment in a town that won’t even let their elders pound the pavement? Those are some seriously wasted tithing dollars, my friends.

Where the film seems to be heading is to convince us the LDS Church’s doctrines are true doctrines of God. You expect it to end with the jury being converted and baptized, or the CTC bursting into flames, or something like that. Such a preachy outcome would have been heavy-handed, true, but at least then the movie would have had a point, serving as the celluloid version of a Mormon missionary pamphlet. Instead, it ends ambiguously, with a resolution that makes you think, “Well, what fetch was the point, then?” At least that’s what I thought, though my exact words might have been slightly stronger.

I don’t believe there is a single event in this film that is plausible, likely or even possible. It exists on some other plane, an entirely different reality from the one we know, where the laws of the United States are meaningless, where LDS missions are governed entirely differently, and where no one notices the quaintness of Mormon actors doing a poor job acting in a film where all they have to do is act like non-Mormons.

F (1 hr., 42 min.; PG, I don't know, a lot of arguing, I guess.)

*SPOILER: Here is the hilarious plot twist mentioned in the review:

The lawyer who’s helping the missionaries prepare their case becomes very, very involved, totally wrapped up in his work. He has a young daughter with whom he had promised to go on a fishing trip (or something; my memory is fuzzy), but he cancels at the last minute in favor of helping the missionaries instead. His daughter is angry and upset and chases him out the door. As he starts to drive away, she chases after him, and then he accidentally runs her over and kills her. Ta-da!

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