Higher Ground: When God Doesn’t Talk Back

Vera Farmiga goes looking for heaven in her directorial debut

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Molly Hawkey / Sony Pictures Classics

Vera Farmiga stars as Corinne Walker in Higher Ground

Male heroes, in the big action movies, get to save the world by blowing it up. The journey of women, especially in indie films, is different: passive saints, they abide and endure and finally, bravely, say no. Their heroism is a defiant step outside the church of patriarchy.

Vera Farmiga, as actress and director, traces this domestic and spiritual quest in Higher Ground, the troubling and often rewarding biography of Carolyn Briggs. The Briggs memoir, This Dark World, relates a modern via dolorosa, as, with her young husband, she joins a hippie religious commune in the 1970s and, on her own, struggles for more than a decade to hear the word of God. In the script that Briggs wrote with Tim Metcalfe, Carolyn is called Corinne and is embodied by Farmiga, the indie icon whose pale face critics have so often compared to that of a Renaissance Madonna that she could have been the object of veneration here, not the agonized supplicant.

When filmmakers are looking for an actor fully committed to a character’s truth, without flinching or editorializing, they go to Farmiga. In mainstream movies she has often played the grownup voice of authority to the guys who do the running and fighting: as Leonardo DiCaprio’s shrink (and Matt Damon’s lover) in The Departed, or as Jake Gyllenhaal’s mysterious boss in Source Code. She’s been moms to some very unusual kids, in Joshua and Orphan, and the high-flying businesswoman who is completely in control of her own heart — and of George Clooney’s — in Up in the Air, which won her an Oscar nomination. But Farmiga is most highly valued as the sweetheart and earth mother of American independent cinema. Her performance as the cocaine-addicted mom in Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone was a subtly sensational juggling act of empathy and insight.

(Read TIME magazine’s profile of Vera Farmiga.)

Farmiga asked Granik to direct Higher Ground, but Granik was already preparing last year’s Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone, another drama of a rural renegade bucking the system. So the actress gave herself the directing job, in between the 2008 and 2010 births of her two children; unlike Carolyn/Corinne, Farmiga has no doubts about her vocation, no reluctance to seize the means of expression in a practice dominated by men. Taking over the movie was also her way of assuring that she’d have a complex role to play. Farmiga once was so frustrated by the scripts she was offered that she stacked them up and set them afire.

Corinne is someone searching for that fire: the flames of God’s love she wants kindled inside her. As a child (played by Mackenzie Turner) she placidly feeds a piglet while her pregnant mom (Donna Murphy) has sex with dad (Winter’s Bone‘s John Hawkes). Swine and sex are a big motif here: When the teenage Corinne (the role now taken by Farmiga’s kid sister Taissa) consummates her passion with dishy high-school musician Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), the scene is a farm field and the only observer a large pig. On tour with their child in the band’s van, she survives a crash into a stream and believes this an act of God’s saving love. Soon (with Farmiga now playing Corinne), she is in the water again: being baptized by Ethan (now Joshua Leonard) into an evangelical Christian commune. Says the commune’s pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz): “She’s one fish the Lord has been trying to hook for a long time.”

At the moment of inundation, Farmiga’s face reveals a kind of perplexed beatitude; Corinne has reached the heaven she’s been searching for but isn’t sure of the rules up here. She slowly realizes that, in its priesthood, this hippie church of the ’70s is similar to the radical movements of the ’60s: the sense of calling, the frequent meetings for folk songs and indoctrination, the ascetic lifestyle… and the patriarchy. The guys are the church elders, the women meant to be their helpmeets and handmaidens. Corinne often implores God and shoos away Satan — “Get lost, Bub!” (for Beelzebub). But either God is silent to her pleas or her brainwashing hasn’t reached the rinse cycle. Corinne’s vivacious friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), who gets as much fulfillment from sex as from loving Christ, confides that she speaks in tongues. When Corinne tries that, studying her attempted rapture in the bathroom mirror, she manages only gibberish. She can speak to God no more clearly than He to her.

(Read TIME’s cover story on Pastor Rob Bell: What If Hell Doesn’t Exist?)

One day she gets the nerve to address the congregation, telling the men, “If you want the Ganders to have a winning season, if you want it, I mean, it’ll take a miracle all right, but I’ll pray anyway, and then I’ll thank Him when they choke in the fourth quarter like they always do. Isn’t that what faith is? … Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” To this eloquent testimony, Bill’s response is a condescending, “I see you women have been hittin’ your Bible studies,” and one congregant (Natalie Thomas) warns Corinne that “We have be so careful not to appear as though we’re teaching men.” From then on, Corinne is wary. Before drinking the Eucharist wine, she wipes the rim with her dress hem. Her troubled face is like a wordless letter smuggled out of prison — the confinement of the church’s expectations that she will be a dutiful wife and believer.

You might wish that Farmiga the director had communicated some sizzle of the commune’s fervor; but the actors feel uncomfortable in holy-roller mode, and seem less like true believers than like visitors at a revival meeting dutifully miming religious ecstasy. Leonard’s Ethan is portrayed as a perplexed, almost impotent observer to his wife’s spiritual crisis; but neither he nor the others sell the genuine, if deranged, vitality of fundamentalism. There’s hardly an affectionate scene involving Corinne and Ethan. That comes later, after they have separated, at a birthday party that reconvenes Corinne’s post-nuclear family. Tension and good nature play to a standstill, and Corinne’s sweetest kiss says goodbye.

(Photos: A Brief History of Women’s Protests)

As director, Farmiga is a strong believer in cinematic democracy, allowing the other actors to seize the center of the action and the frame. In a cast that includes two Oscar nominees (Farmiga and Hawkes) and three Tony winners (Murphy, Butz and Bill Irwin, as a slickly predatory preacher), the proceedings are dominated by Dominczyk’s welcome, saving presence. Not only is her Annika the one believer who has merged her faith with her life, but the vitality in Dominczyk’s performance and the contrast of her black hair and voluptuous sensuality stand out among the rest of the women — wan, demure sisters in Christ.

Farmiga gives Corinne a final speech of reconciliation and farewell, as Higher Ground leaves the viewer with a quiet heroine and the rapturous hymn from which the film takes its title. “My heart has no desire to stay / Where doubts arise and fears dismay. / Though some may dwell where those abound, / My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.” Farmiga’s ambitious, appealing film is a view of that exalted terrain from a distant perspective.