Boy, Mormons have a hard time keeping their Marklar out of everyone’s Marklar, amirite? As a godless heathen with only the internet, alcohol, and Danny Brown as my presiding saints, assuming a stance of dismissal is the organic reaction to the zealous mission work instituted by the Church of Latter Day Saints. To borrow from an essay written by Chuck Klosterman in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (yes I was an obnoxious teenager), Klosterman posited that Christian missionaries, as opposed to swimming in constant solace because their souls are already saved, are in constant anxiety because everyone around them is unaware of the gaping void in their lives. Now that I think about it, missionaries are just online music nerds doing everything in their power to get you to listen to their favorite band (shots fired, come at me guys).
The Saratov Approach is the true story of the 1998 kidnapping of two Mormon missionaries in Saratov, Russia, and the ensuing drama that always accompanies someone getting handcuffed to a radiator in a dirty room. Well, I can’t really say that: human trafficking is and has been rife through Russia for the better part of the past decade, but when a couple of Americans with sweater vests and blank smiles get nabbed, everyone of course loses their minds. Seeing as I was 10 at the time, the entire affair flew a bit over my radar, but in researching the ordeal, it seems the American media had a feels bacchanal. In a more tempered approach to the subject matter, director Garrett Batty could have created a drama in contention for year-end spots through his abilities in crafting insane amounts of tension and well-executed character chemistry. In the end, though, I felt like someone in a shirt buttoned all the way to the top and a vacuous smile handed me an invite card for a prayer meeting.
Roughly 60% of the film transpires in a filthy little room where Tuttle (Corbin Allred) and Propst (Maclain Nelson) are held in chains under the watch of morally ambiguous Nikolai (Nikita Bogolyubov). In a cinematic cadence similar to films on protracted military engagements, The Saratov Approach is brief flares of guerrilla violence peppered in a sea of silent anxiety. Tuttle and Propst wile away their internment with kitschy reflections on baseball cards, hometown life, and the conviction higher beings placed them where they were destined to be. The film trades heavily on the whole persecution shtick Christians have been fetishizing for the past two millennia, and as someone from the outside looking in, after a while the effect carried like a lead weight on my back. When is a Christian going to make a film just titled How I Go to Church and Stay Out of Everyone’s Bizness?
Director Garrett Batty sits on the vanguard of a new breed of proselytizers who are conscious of Washed Out and Spike Jonze. This new guard capitalizes on our generation’s penchant for slick visuals and slicker typefaces, attempting to slip a pocket Bible into that tribal print chambray button-up you just bought. Batty’s capable behind a lens: his long shots of animated Saratov streets and sweeping panoramas of the hard, natural beauty of rural Russia seat you right in 1998 as these two Mormons try to swell their flock. But for all his tracking shots and well-executed local color, you never forget you’re being sold something throughout the film.
I’m sure missionaries do in fact feel some sort of needling impetus to get as many as they can onto the lifeboats. The thing is, they don’t seem to realize most people are wholly content to tread water and want to be left the fuck alone. There’s only so much sympathy I can feel for these two; they made a slew of stupid decisions where kidnapping was a likely outcome and then chalked it up to a miracle they got out alive. The only miracle of The Saratov Approach is that I didn’t get sent a photo of Joseph Smith and a brochure about Brigham Young along with my screener.