Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Pastor’s Wife (Front Street Pictures, Preacher Road Productions, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched a TV-movie that had its so-called “World Premiere” on Lifetime last night, The Pastor’s Wife (obviously not to be confused with The Preacher’s Wife, the Black-cast remake of The Bishop’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston), based on a real-life case in 2006 in which the wife of a small-town minister in Tennessee murdered her husband, apparently in cold blood, then claimed as her defense that he had been beating and otherwise abusing her for years — though we don’t learn that until this movie is more than half over. Though at first the authorities believe that an unknown person or persons broke into the house, killed the husband and kidnapped mom and the kids, we see the panicked flight of Mary Winkler (Rose McGowan) and her three daughters, 13-year-old Hannah (Julia Sarah Stone), eight-year-old Emily (Lilah Fitzgerald) and baby Sarah, who cross several state lines into Mississippi and finally are apprehended in Alabama, supposedly on their way to Mexico, and we know whodunit; the question this time is whydunit. The Pastor’s Wife is a movie I have mixed feelings about big-time — indeed, I headlined my review, “I’m still not sure what to think of this one” — since this film, directed by Norma Bailey from a script by Robert L. Freedman based on a book by Diane Fanning, who according to her Wikipedia page is both a true-crime (10 books) and mystery fiction (five books) author, is a really mixed bag that does some things quite well and lapses back into Lifetime (and other people’s) clichés in others.

The film is structurally complex, though not confusingly so, and I figured one reason they cast someone as young-looking as Rose McGowan as Mary was so they could do flashbacks showing her being courted by Matthew Winkler (a chillingly understated and matter-of-fact performance by Michael Shanks) when she was still a teenager — she’s 31 when the murder occurs, she’s been married for 13 years and her oldest daughter Hannah (Julia Sarah Stone) is 18, so you can do the math and conclude that Matthew, an aspiring minister in the ultra-strict Church of Christ (which, among other things, forbids divorce), got her knocked up and had to tie the knot in a hurry. It adds to the burden of guilt, shame and religious authoritarianism that Matthew’s father Dan (Eric Keenleyside) was also a Church of Christ minister — and he and his wife Diane (Dolores Drake) take custody of the children when Mary is arrested, intercept all her letters to them and do their level best to turn them against her. We see a flashback to the wedding service, which includes a quote from St. Paul’s instruction that the wife must submit to her husband as both must submit to the Lord, and we get all the information we need as to why Matthew believes his “right” to beat, sexually abuse and terrorize Mary is literally sanctioned by God. There’s also a nice throwaway line in which the prosecutor in the case, Elizabeth Rice (Carrie Genzel, who turns in a nicely butch performance showcasing not only her skill as a prosecutor but the thick skin she’s had to have to be a professionally ambitious woman in a male chauvinist world like Selmer, Tennessee), is notified that Mary and her attorney are going to claim spousal abuse as her defense, and she says, “I wonder what took them so long.”

The film is basically the story of how Mary’s instinct to protect her husband even after killing him gradually broke down — and I find it chillingly ironic that the jury is unmoved by her tales of physical abuse, but takes her side when she brings in a wig and a stiletto-heeled silver lamé shoe and testifies that these are part of a hooker-drag garment that Matthew, who’d got hooked on porn via the Internet (hey, kids, when these religious freaks go bad, they go bad!), made her wear in bed and also forced her to have anal-receptive sex with him. There were probably people in town, and certainly on the jury, who figured that being beaten by your husband was no big deal, but being forced by him to take him in the ass — that was enough that they would believe her and let her off relatively leniently, which is what happens: she’s acquitted of first- and second-degree murder but convicted of manslaughter, though as things turn out her sentence is suspended, she does time served (while waiting for trial) plus seven days, and when the film ends she’s free and has custody of her kids again — though one of the customers in the diner where she’s working as a waitress recognizes her, says, “Aren’t you the girl who killed her husband and got away with it?,” to which she ripostes, “Wanna be the next one?” There’s also the neat touch that Mary’s oldest daughter, Hannah, turns against her while her middle child, Emily, remains supportive — and it turns out that was because Emily heard an exchange between her parents on the fateful morning when she killed him that convinced her Mary was justified, whereas Hannah heard no such thing and remained in the mind-set that her dad was a great man and her mom a monster for killing him.

The Pastor’s Wife is best in evoking the mind-set of this horrible religion and also the Kafka-esque plight Mary finds herself in — like many battered women in real life, she’d done such a great job covering up for her husband when he was actually beating her that she hadn’t left a trail of physical evidence that could back up her story later when it needed confirmation. It’s a neat movie and I’m probably making it better on reflection than I thought it was when I was watching it (that happens sometimes), but at base it’s still another Lifetime pussy-in-peril movie and Norma Bailey’s direction is workmanlike instead of giving this story the neo-noir atmosphere it deserved.