Let’s face it, movies are a waste of time and money, especially considering that the average film has a budget of over $200 million. Every once in a while, however, a true gem comes along that almost vindicates the flood of resources that fuels Hollywood debauchery. The other day I purchased a humble project titled Fireproof. My wife and I watched it together and had one of the best discussions we have had in our marriage.
The production is a bit rough; the acting seems rehearsed at times and the camera work is simple. Not all the actors have the sculpted bodies we’re used to, either. But it’s good enough that I never would have guessed what I learned in one of the extras on the DVD: this film was made entirely by volunteers. Members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA pooled their resources and their talents, according to their trade, in construction, cinematography, theatre or computer graphics, and on one occasion, a stranger whose house they filmed an action scene next to volunteered his services with a forklift. The result is a film that looks almost as slick as, and is more engaging than, many big-budget Hollywood pictures.
But the most important thing about Fireproof is that it is one of very – very few films in history that have the potential to profoundly impact the lives of those who see them. The beginning gets our attention instantly because it realistically portrays something most people care about and are fearful for – their marriages. A couple of heated exchanges between the primal couple, firefighter Caleb (Kirk Cameron, the only professional actor in the cast) and Catherine (Erin Bethea) Holt, are almost painful to sit through, not because they’re bad but because they’re such a frank portrayal of a marriage falling apart. Catherine eventually tells Caleb she wants out.
In the next several scenes, we see both of them talking to their friends
about it. I couldn’t help but laugh as Caleb tells Michael, his lieutenant, (Ken Bevel) “I bet she’s whining to all her friends about me right now … and they’re having this big old group hug …” while we see Catherine doing just that. It’s interesting that Michael pushes Caleb to reexamine himself and take responsibility for his part of the problem, while Catherine’s friends instantly agree with her and join her in disparaging Caleb. On the other hand, my wife says I side too much with Caleb.
Caleb’s parents urge him not to get divorced. His father asks him to wait forty days, and sends him a notebook with a hand-written forty-day program called “The Love Dare.” Each entry directs Caleb to do something to show love to his wife, beginning with not saying anything negative to her and increasing from there. Grudgingly, he forces himself through the motions of the first few days. We alternate between chuckling and wincing as Catherine scoffs at and spurns his half-hearted attempts. At one point he tells his father “I feel nothing.” His father reminds him that “you can’t listen to the way you feel at the moment.” This is a welcome change from the brainless follow-your-feelings messages movies spit out.
Calling this program a “dare” is no idle boast. In fact, it’s an understatement. In the United States, it takes two to get married, but only one to get divorced. The only way to stop it is to change your spouse’s mind. This makes it extremely risky for one partner to resist a divorce, because it’s almost impossible, and resisting the divorce when you could be fighting for your rights in the divorce leaves you much more likely to get burned. Fireproof is a story of extreme courage, and going out on a limb for somebody in a way that doesn’t require any special effects, but is no less nail-biting for it.
Bethea gives a tour-de-force portrayal of a wife’s pain in a marriage going nowhere. One scene where she pours out her heart about how humiliated she feels when Caleb looks at pornography is impossible to forget, and her sadness is infectious as she eats meals and does chores alone.
Cameron plays his role well as a real, relatable American guy, and screen writers Alex and Stephen Kendrick were careful to include a few intense fire rescue scenes to give the movie an ample dose of testosterone. Male audience members will connect easily with Caleb and his longing for respect, need to blow off steam, and yearning for the next big thing.
All of which is the perfect preparation for the pivotal moment in Fireproof, about half-way through. Upon the instructions of day 18, Caleb prepares a candlelit dinner for Catherine, sparing no expense. When she comes home and sees it, she simply looks at him and declares “I do not love you,” and walks out. The next day, Caleb is walking through a wood with his dad, and the rejection is beyond what he can bare. In a cathartic moment, he blurts out
“She’s ungrateful. You’d think after I’ve washed the car, done the dishes, cleaned the house, that she would try to show me a little gratitude. But when I come home, she makes me feel like I’m an enemy. … For the last three weeks I have bent over backwards for her. I have tried to demonstrate that I still care about this relationship. I bought her flowers – which she threw away! I have taken her insults and her sarcasm, but last night was it. I made dinner for her, I did everything I could think of to show her that I care about her, to show value for her. And she spat in my face! She does not deserve this, Dad. How am I supposed to show love to somebody who constantly rejects me?”
All of what he’s saying is true, and what turns things around is not that Caleb and Catherine realize how wonderful the other really is. In the following minutes, Caleb realizes that he has never truly loved his wife, and in fact he cannot do so, because, as his dad points out, “you can’t give her what you don’t have.” Everything that Caleb has just accused Catherine of, he has been doing to someone else throughout his life. The movie expresses a profound truth about love: it has to start somewhere. And it can’t start with flawed human beings, but only with the Love for that which is unlovable.
There aren’t many movies everyone should see, but this is one. Fireproof will challenge and inspire audiences to do the hardest, most frightening thing they’ve ever done – to truly love someone, as well as point them to the only way it can happen.
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