Divine Access, Steven Chester Prince’s quasi-theological indie, comes along at an interesting moment in American culture—a moment of intense sociopolitical polarity; a moment of authoritarian bombast, religious zealotry and prurient excess; and a moment where the boundaries between lives private and public have corroded almost entirely. A lightly satirical dramedy that follows Zen master Jack Harriman (played by the perfectly cast Billy Burke) as he becomes a hot ticket on the speaking tour circuit of the Deep South, Divine Access captures this moment with a fine touch. Prince’s film exhibits an understanding of the zeitgeist and the peculiar crystallization of ideas and trends that make this time in 21st century America so disquieting for so many.
Burke’s Jack, whose mornings are marked by coffee on his porch and skinny-dips in the lake below it, is your archetypal easy-going dude, clad in boot-cut jeans and trucker hats, waxing philosophical in vague platitudes; his personal doctrine for life is defined by a sort of relativism, a chill openness, a penchant for living in the “now.” His friend, Bob, played with classic drollery by Patrick Warburton, invites him to appear on Divine Access, a public access television show hosted by the Reverend Guy Roy Davis, who Bob is looking to fire. When Jack appears on the show and debunks the Christ-revering Reverend’s ideas, he becomes a celebrity of sorts, earning the ire of the man he embarrassed and the adoration of viewers—a record four of them call into the show when Jack becomes its host, which Bob notes is four more callers than the show’s ever received.
With throngs of eager disciples mobilizing in support, Jack embarks on a speaking tour with Nigel (Joel David Moore), the cinematic lovechild of Kenneth Parcell and Napoleon Dynamite, who documents Jack’s teachings like a scrivener. Once Jack and Nigel start the tour, the film becomes a unique take on the road trip picture, as Jack enjoys one-night stands in motels with his more impish female converts, who are less keen on his fatuous existentialist rigmarole than his good looks and his celebrity. The too heavy-handed question probed throughout the film is this: does Jack even believe half the shit he’s saying, and does he take responsibility for indoctrinating his loyalists with his unflappable anything-goes dogma? It’s hard to tell just how earnest he is, since he seems equally sincere sermonizing to fans and bringing girls back to his room afterwards. But the better question is why the film buys into Jack’s philosophy, lionizing its protagonist in much the same way his henchmen do? Jack is not a demagogue like The Master’s Lancaster Dodd, nor is he a fanatical nut, but Divine Access, written by Prince, John O’Connell and Michael Zagst, seems to think there’s a lot more to what he’s saying than there actually is.
In one scene, he and Nigel discuss a cup. Or is it a mug? Or is it a glass? Jack’s making some Barthesian point about the elusive nature of knowledge, but he’s no poststructuralist, merely a man who’s managed to intellectualize just how unfruitful his own quest for truth has been. Like all great charlatans, he’s self-serving but self-effacing, confused and charismatic. Burke’s performance captures these binaries with nuance and command; it’s even more admirable considering he appears in almost every scene, each time channeling Jack’s endearing dissociation from his words.
Meanwhile, the Reverend, played by a devastating and hysterical Gary Cole, is unraveling. After being fired from Divine Access, he becomes a ventriloquist, with a dummy of Jesus Christ in tow, harassing ungodly pedestrians on the streets. Then, he’s fired from a grocery store for proselytizing in the aisles, barking scriptures as he loses his sanity. Unfortunately, the film makes a caricature of the Reverend, and the dual narrative about the disparate methods of serving the people—Jack’s relativism, the Reverend’s radicalism—is a lazy, predictable one; the latter has about one scene to Jack’s four (so it’s not so much a dual narrative as a half-hearted attempt to keep us updated on the Reverend’s downfall), and one can foresee the disaster of their fraught reunion coming from a mile away. Drowning in religious iconography, from a crucifix to a baptism, the final encounter between the two appeals to our basest desire for melodrama, oversimplifying many of the complex ideas that precede it.
In all this is the spectral presence of Marian (Sarah Shahi), a woman who might be following Jack, though if the ominous score that accompanies her every appearance is a hint, she’s probably just in his head. She chastises his unfeelingness, operating as a sort of apparitional reminder of his purpose, which, like most things in the film, remains unknown. There’s also Amber (Dora Madison), a distraught prostitute Jack and Nigel meet at a motel and bring to safety (as only white men can do). In all this, there are beautifully constructed shots of the Prairie-like South (by cinematographer is Julie Kirkwood), complete with classic road trip movie accoutrements, like gravelly open roads and alt-rock radio.
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the film comes when Jack’s acolytes begin to accumulate outside his lakeside home. The invasion of privacy is jarring to him at first, though it’s only half as terrifying as his sudden realization that he’s become their prophet, a man who is supposed to have all the answers. Of course, their reluctance to accept that Jack is at best a good Samaritan and at worst a self-congratulatory fraud gets at something central to the conflation of religion and politics: that we’re all yearning to follow someone, to be a part of something larger than ourselves. “You want to serve someone?” Jack asks them. “Serve each other.” It’s a cheesy little sound bite, par for the course in a film like Divine Access, where the quotes on refrigerator magnets attempt to pass as philosophy. But it’s probably not a terrible idea, and spoken in the soothing, populist parlance of Jack Harriman, it’s almost convincing.
Director: Stephen Chester Prince
Writer: John A. O’Connell, Steven Chester Prince, Michael Zagst
Starring: Billy Burke, Patrick Warburton, Gary Cole, Sarah Shahi, Dora Madison, Joel David Moore