Mario’s Movies: “I Can Only Imagine” Carries Christian Movies Forward

By Mario Ricciardi

Hollywood is really good at making movies with troubling, sad and complicated endings. Often,  we watch a character grow into a person who is worse for wear than who we were first introduced to. It’s the core nature of drama. There must be conflict, and conflict always dishes out consequence.

“The Godfather” ends with Michael Corleone rising to power in the underworld and hiring hits to take out his competition. “The Dark Knight” ends with Batman dealing with the realization he can no longer be close to someone in order to fight for justice. “Fight Club” ends with two mentally unstable people blowing up major credit card companies to plunge the world into pre-civilization chaos. All three of these films are tent poles of American culture and all three reveal dark consequences of drama. So what do they have to do with a little Christian film called “I Can Only Imagine”?

“I Can Only Imagine” is a latest entry into the Christian film genre. Much like Hallmark movies, Christian films tend to fall into a predictable and repetitive pattern. Every story can feel like a cookie cutter impression and every ending is a happy one. In a world where movies tend to dilute messages of solidarity, the Christian film genre has a devotion to holding firm to their truth. For this reason, most flop critically yet do fairly well commercially. In their own stand-alone way, Christian productions are like the rebels of the film industry. “I Can Only Imagine” both fits into this and stands apart in its own unique way.

The movie is about Bart Millard, front man of the contemporary Christian band MercyMe, and the creation of their hit song “I Can Only Imagine.” They say everyone has their cross to bear and Bart is no different. From an early age he wanted to be a musician and as if chasing an artistic passion isn’t difficult enough, he also has to deal with a severely abusive father. His father had previously abandoned his own dreams and passions, and would use his pain to torment Bart. Dennis Quaid delivers a haunting performance as this broken man.

At 18, Bart finally leaves his father and sets out to chase his dream. Touring the country with his band, Bart realizes there is a certain ceiling he cannot break through, and it is clear to the audience he must return home to make amends with his father to do so. I can assure you the ending is a happy one and of course the hit song “I Can Only Imagine” gets written and produced and makes lots of money. But this is insignificant to the journey there.

Bleak endings definitely have their place in storytelling, but I believe the highs and lows of a journey can translate better with an audience than the ending. Life isn’t a two-hour movie (no matter how seamlessly Scorsese fits 30 into that timeframe) and people don’t necessarily want something that ends. They want a story they can bring home with them. “I Can Only Imagine” does a wonderful job inspiring hope in an audience, despite some of its flaws like character development and acting, and gives theater goers something to take home in their hearts.

Before I conclude, I need to mention that if Dennis Quaid, who plays Bart’s abusive dad, delivered the performance he did in “I Can Only Imagine” in a more mainstream film, he’d have an Oscar come next March. He did a riveting job displaying a broken man discovering a desire for change. I would say the movie is worth seeing just for his acting.

“I Can Only Imagine” has a lot of standout work in it, not to mention it’s a feel-good tear-jerker. It sets a new standard for the Christian film genre and it’s always great to see an underdog pull forward. It feels nearly genuine in terms of filmic aspirations, and there is plenty in it for both the casual audience and filmmakers alike. Despite the occasional dip into commonplace tropes “I Can Only Imagine” delivers something exceptional and unique.

???? (4/5 Penguins)