Outer crust Steve Martin, this movie skewers the faith healing industry and America’s mindless underbelly in one. From those glory days of 1992 it’s Leap of Faith, and it’s down and dirty. These were the days when James Randi and ABC News reporter Dianne Sawyer ripped open Robert Tilton’s sordid milking of the faithful. Although set in rural Kansas, production appropriately took place closer to home in towns like Tulia and Groom plus Plainview, all in the Texas Panhandle. Full disclosure: I have relatives in Plainview.
In March this streamed on Amazon Prime Video, and I captured the screen shots before it disappeared in April. Details are from Wikipedia.
- Steve Martin as Jonas Nightengale
- Debra Winger as Jane Larson
- Lolita Davidovich as Marva
- Liam Neeson as Sheriff Will Braverman
- Lukas Haas as Boyd
- Albertina Walker as Lucille
- Meat Loaf as Hoover
- Philip Seymour Hoffman as Matt
- M. C. Gainey as Tiny
- La Chanze as Georgette
- Delores Hall as Ornella
- Phyllis Somerville as Dolores
- Troy Evans as Officer Lowell Dade
- Ricky Dillard as choirmaster
Robert Tilton, W.V. Grant, and Kenneth Copeland all had “ministries” in the Dallas area during the time. Tilton’s Word of Faith Family Church was alongside I-35E in Carrollton, and further north along the interstate was a grain elevator of sorts with “Jesus is Lord” painted in bold across three silos. My brother once met the woman who did the artwork. Grant’s Eagle’s Nest Family Church was a palatial edifice visible to the west as I drove along Highway 208 to my brother’s house. I never saw Copeland’s complex, but I understand it was east of Dallas, out near Rockwall.
Jonas Nightengale has none of these. His church rolls wheels in a caravan that crisscrosses the American heartland, diving for dollars. We see the playful troop of professional grifters as things are about to unravel in Rustwater, Kansas. Hint, there is no such town.
A crucial truck throws a clutch, and the caravan grinds to a halt. It will take several days before the local shop can get in the part, so they all pile out and file into the town’s main diner.
Jonas Nightengale (not his real name) takes immediate fancy to the main waitress. He is Elmer Gantry reborn and prepared to ram the spirit of the Lord into any and every compliant wench. Marva is not all that compliant, life having dealt her a rough hand to the tune up her resistance. Jonas feels rebuffed, which only fuels his determination.
Since they will be in Rustwater for a few days, Jonas figures to make the most of it. They will set up shop and milk a few dollars from the gullible locals. But first they need a permit, and Sheriff Braverman is obstinate, knowing full well what the scam is and feeling the need to protect the impoverished yokels. The place is on hard times. The economy is farm-based, and there has been no rain since Mother Teresa pulled her last miracle. Farm foreclosures are staggering, and unemployment is north of 20%. He has no legal reason to deny the permit, but the sheriff becomes determined to thwart the scam.
Yes, here it is, the idol to salvation since 2000 years when the Romans used it to torture people to death. It may not be pink and pleasant, but it does glow in the dark.
And the people come, and Jonas is in rare form. And Martin is in supreme form as he moves the multitude to jubilation. They are well and thoroughly taken. The money pours in, but it’s a trickle compared to other venues.
Jonas’ partner in crime is Jane Larson, and she takes a shine to the sheriff, a straight shooting guy with a gentle side to charm her. The attraction is mutual. Something develops.
Jonas continues to move on Marva, but we see the source of her reserve. Her brother Boyd was crippled in an automobile accident, after which faith healers drained the family fortune.
At a tabernacle meeting the sheriff unveils the results of his research. Jonas is not his real name, and he has a sordid past. He has been a conman and a swindler all his life.
But, as we knew he would, Jonas turns all this around. He acknowledges his past and exemplifies it as the heights to which a person can climb through faith in the Lord. Then things begin to break.
Although the tent was guarded all night, with the coming of a new day the eyes of Jesus on the cross, previously closed, are now open. The faithful flock to his meetings.
But Boyd is the sand in the gears. He comes forward, begging to be healed. What has he got to lose, Jonas finally decides. He invokes the power of the Lord, and, behold, Boyd shucks his crutches and walks. Hallelujah! The power of the Lord is manifest. The road ahead will be paved with gold.
But it’s enough for Jonas. Jane quits the show and hooks up with the sheriff. Before dawn breaks for what will surely be a Fort Knox day, Jonas catches a ride at the truck stop and tells the driver he has no idea where he will be going, but he will always find something. And it starts to rain, really hard. Praise the Lord!
The Prime Time Live exposé dented Tilton’s scam severely, but not fatally. Fate poured it on, however. Tilton was renting a house in nearby Irving, Texas, but the house was owned by a drug lord. The feds busted the landlord, and they confiscated. the house. Now the United States government was Tilton’s landlord, and his rent became public knowledge. It was $6000 a month. That may not sound like much these days, but 30 years ago it was more than most of us made in a whole day. And his wife divorced him. The Word of Faith building in Carrollton went vacant, and the lettering on the silos came off. Read the item on Wikipedia. Robert Tilton is proof there is life after death.
I like to lay a bunch of this foolishness on rural America, but the truth is you can dive deep into any large, metropolitan center and find the same mentality. P.T. Barnum, eat your heart out.