For a movie made by a man who calls himself an atheist, "You Can Count on Me" is full of church and contains the most accurate screen portrayal of a man of the cloth--at least a mainline, liberal minister like myself--in recent memory. And not just accurate, but so far to the front of Lonergan's mind that he plays the minister himself.
"You Can Count on Me" is a slice-of-life story, with all the pathos and troubled (and troublesome) characters of a good country song. After the credits roll against the backdrop of a church steeple, the camera settles on a boy and girl sitting in a pew at their parents' memorial service. Years later, the brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo), now a pot-smoking wanderer, arrives in his hometown, defensive and edgy, to borrow money from his well-adjusted sister, Sammy (Laura Linney), now a single mom living in the old family home, with a good job at the bank. Sammy's solidity is revealed to have some holes: She's got serious issues of her own about sex, and her emotions run between elation and guilt as she commits adultery throughout the movie.
To help them deal with their respective crises, Terry and Sammy each have a short encounter with the pastor at Sammy's church. First, Sammy invites the minister over to the house to help straighten Terry out, and later goes to him herself, trying to sort out her man trouble.
In both encounters, the minister's manner is what has been frequently described to me as a distinctly "unpriestly." Priests judge. Priests condemn. Priests put dogma before the people's lives. Hollywood tends to reinforce this priestly profile. The culture wars have turned the standard-issue Hollywood clergyman from a kindly, consoling irrelevancy in the Barry Fitzgerald mode to a right-wing busybody who uses Jesus to hide his own hang-ups. At my screening of "You Can Count on Me," it took a barely perceptible eye roll on Terry's part to get the audience hooting with laughter at the priest's temerity in showing up at the house.
Terry tells the minister he thinks religion is "fairy tales" and says he no longer "believes." The minister, seemingly unconcerned with the specificities of belief, counters by asking an apparently heartfelt question, and one that underlies the principle of ministry: "Do you think your life matters? Not in relation to God or religion or some other term you object to, but do you feel your life is important in the scheme of things?" The scene ends with little resolved, but with Terry's palpable irritation and confusion at this line of questioning.
Many evangelical ministers would say Lonergan's minister is forfeiting a chance to advance the gospel here. Others might argue that he has exchanged his ministerial role for that of the therapist. Surprising as it might be for people who imagine that priests rely only on condemnation, this is a true portrayal of a thoroughly postmodern, liberal priest.
What is the underlying goal of the priest in the film? What is my goal? Like Lonergan's priest, I admit to being undogmatic about the language of faith. Doctrine is secondary to the experience of faith, which involves the visceral knowledge of the importance of our lives in God's eyes. By translating that principle into the importance of our lives "in the scheme of things," as Lonergan says, a minister increases the chances of striking a chord in a person who is resistant to the history and language of Christianity. What reached the brother in this encounter was the lack of an easy answer to the priest's question. Confusion, in this case, signals a successful ministerial moment.
In Sammy's case, she was already confused; what she wanted was to understand. By refusing to condemn her, Lonergan's character allows her to come to her own conclusions about her behavior, and change it.
In other words, Lonergan's priest did not seem to care about winning the moment or winning a soul. I don't notch my belt with conversions either. Understandably, this is a key to the decline of the mainstream, liberal church. Like Sammy begging the priest to condemn her behavior, some people complain of the church's lack of fight. But we don't fight to win. We try to understand the situation, and then we "share" the gospel as we understand it.
This may come across as wimpy, but the true measure of a minister's success is when a congregant understands himself better or begins to think about her life in a different way. Perhaps, we hope, the person will allow the new knowledge to translate into a change in behavior. There is not one culminating event (accepting Jesus into the heart) but (hopefully) a sense of progression.
Ultimately, ministers like Lonergan's have faith in a God that will not judge people on their sins but will ultimately forgive all and save all. The brother and sister have been through a lot in their lives, but they continue to be there for each other. And God is there for each of us in every situation. The title of the film says it all.