Kevin Smith’s original trilogy of films, while covering a range of different subject matter, all had a similar scope to them, centering around stories of twenty-somethings and their interpersonal problems, with some dick jokes sprinkled liberally throughout. The stakes were relatively low. That said, it certainly was a departure from the established norm for Smith’s newest film to involve the fate of the entirety of existence, all while directly examining Catholicism and the concept of faith. Originally titled God, Smith actually started writing the initial script for this film soon after Clerks, but knew that to tell a story this grand of scale, he’d need some more movies under his belt to both actually be able to finance such a movie, and have the work experience to pull it off. After resurrecting his career with Chasing Amy, it seemed like then was as good a time as any for Smith to take a shot at his religious opus.
Dogma is easily Smith’s biggest movie in a number of ways: the stacked cast of big celebrities, the ambition of the storytelling, and the sometimes dramatic tone and serious subject matter. It also feels like the most difficult film so far to break down for a review, just because there’s so many different things going on in it. Unlike Mallrats and Amy, I was a pretty big fan of this one when I was younger, coming close to rivaling Clerks as my favorite. I wouldn’t call it the meatiest satire, and there’s some groaner jokes throughout, but it raises a lot of interesting ideas and questions about organized religion and the idea of faith; nothing too complex, but general enough to be a little thought-provoking, especially to my then-teenage self. It never feels like it gets too far up its own ass with its sermonizing… although it does get a little close at times.
Bartleby and Loki are two angels banished from Heaven by God, doomed to languish away for eternity in Milwaukee, Wisconsin… at least until they discover a way back. As a marketing strategy to help boost the Catholic Church, a cardinal in New Jersey announces an event where all who walk through the doors of his church will receive a plenary indulgence, wiping their souls free of sin. If the two angels shed their wings to become mortal, then die with a clean spiritual slate, they would be readmitted into Heaven. However, to do so would contradict God’s infallible order, undoing all of creation. To prevent this, a human on Earth is recruited to stop the angels: Bethany Sloane, a despondent Catholic working at an abortion clinic in Illinois who’s all but lost her faith. She must make her holy pilgrimage to Jersey with some tagalongs, like Rufus, the black thirteenth apostle who was unceremoniously edited out of the Bible, and a duo of unlikely prophets in the form of Jay and Silent Bob.
It feels like reminiscing on such a bygone era, but Dogma was embroiled in controversy upon its release. It wasn’t a massive scandal, but Smith and the studios associated with the film received boxes of hate mail, death threats included, and the film was denounced by The Catholic League. Smith even attended one New Jersey protest of the movie “in disguise,” joining a crowd of a mere two dozen old people. I’d like to believe these protests were, as usual, a relative few making as loud of noise as possible, but it was enough to get the movie’s release date shuffled a few times to attempt to shake the heat. It’s just so funny looking back at the 90s/early 2000s, when hardcore religious types had such massive sway in terms of policing popular culture, something you don’t really hear that much of anymore. The film opens with an acknowledgement to this in the form of a humorous disclaimer: “To insist that any of what follows is incendiary or inflammatory is to miss our intention and pass undue judgement; and passing judgement is reserved for God and God alone (this goes for you film critics too… just kidding).” All of this vitriol before anyone saw the movie, of course, which makes it even funnier considering how gentle and borderline wholesome the actual message of the movie is. I’ve certainly seen much more vicious satire directed at religious figures or religion itself in media before and since Dogma; if not for the vulgar humor, you could probably play this at theological schools now with no issue.
After the disclaimer and a teaser-y opening scene, the film opens on a press conference being held at a New Jersey church with Cardinal Glick (played by George Carlin, a proudly vocal atheist, in a great bit of casting). He’s announcing the launch of the Catholicism Wow! campaign, a sweeping public image refresh for the religion to make it more palatable to a modern audience. One such example is the retiring of the symbol of Jesus on the cross for a more uplifting image (“Christ didn’t come to Earth to give us the willies! He came to help us out! He was a booster!”) in exchange for a new, friendly symbol, as pictured above, the “Buddy Christ” (though Glick assures that’s not an officially sanctioned name, it’s “just something we’ve been kicking around the office.”)
This opening perfectly sets up the primary talking point/criticism the movie circles back to: the skewing of religious ideology to suit the self-serving needs of man. Glick’s invoking of plenary indulgence isn’t some kind of noble or kind act to help people see the light of God, it’s purely to help boost conversion numbers. Later in the film, Glick flat-out admits his main priority is fill the pews, to hook kids into Catholicism while they’re young. When someone rejoins, “Kind of like the tobacco industry?”, Glick sighs, “Christ, if only we had their numbers…” The short-sighted whims of religious leaders like Glick not only fly in the face of the best qualities of organized religion, but also leave the door open for the ultimate undoing of all life as we know it. It’s an excellent set-up for a story. Jumping ahead a bit, but I also like how this abuse of papal power actually helps our heroes at one point, as our demon antagonist is swiftly defeated thanks to a whack with one of Glick’s putters. It’s confusing at first, but then it’s succinctly explained, Glick is “the sort of asshole who would bless his own clubs for a better golf game,” thus why it was able to easily smite the wicked in one swing.
Next we meet Bartleby and Loki, played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, still riding off the flurry of awards they won for Good Will Hunting, which I imagine was a pretty big marketing boost for this film. Affleck is well on his way to filling his Kevin Smith movie punch card, but this is Damon’s first time out (and only major role, barring two brief cameos in the Jay and Silent Bob movies). Not surprisingly, given the two were collaborators, and I assume friends in real life, they play off each other pretty effortlessly. As two immortal beings who have been stuck on Earth for hundreds of years, we quickly see they’ve been dealing with the matter in different ways. Loki (Damon), the former Angel of death, gets his kicks from talking people out of their faith just the fuck with them, specifically seen her with convincing a nun to give up the habit, while Bartleby (Affleck) has a bit of a softer heart, focusing on the fleeting good in God’s creation, marveling at the joy felt by people reuniting at the airport. It quickly sets up the dynamic of the two (Bartleby more grounded and focused, Loki more brash and loose), with both exhibiting a subtle level of exhaustion from their seemingly never-ending exile… at least, until now.
Bartleby has received a newspaper clipping about Cardinal Glick’s big event from an anonymous party, which he sees as the perfect plan to finally get back into Heaven. He explains it all in detail to Loki (and the audience), that whatever decree a man of God makes on Earth will be held true in Heaven (dogmatic law, if you will, giving meaning to the title), so they have the perfect loophole to finally leave Earth (“Let it never be said that your anal retentive attention to detail never yielded positive results!” “You can’t be anal retentive if you don’t have an anus.”) It’s a really interesting premise, and the fact that it’s explained so simply within the first ten minutes of the movie and you get it completely is solid writing. Bartleby and Loki continue their conversation of going out for one last blaze of glory walking into an open elevator, with Loki’s casual, “Let’s go kill people” causing a spit-take by the woman standing next to them. As the elevator doors close, he chuckles, “Oh, not you,” right as we smash cut to the title card. Everything’s really working so far, with an element of an actual threat established at the end amidst the comedic beats.
Affleck and Damon are actually secondary protagonists, since the real focal character in the film is Bethany Sloane, who were first meet sitting in Sunday mass looking completely disaffected. She then goes to work at an abortion clinic, passing through the obnoxious protestors for just another day at the office. I like that her profession is an ironic signifier of how “far she’s fallen” as a Catholic, while never coming off as demonizing abortion (even the holiest of angels is shown to not give a shit, “Noah was a drunk, look what he accomplished!”) We get more information about her gradually as the film goes on, about her divorce, her not being able to have kids, and how both those factors tied into her increasing erosion of her faith. When she speaks about her life and her experiences, you really feel bad for her, and as the movie progresses, you pretty much stay on her side the whole time.
Linda Fiorentino is pretty perfect for this role, starting off as completely demoralized by religion (and life in general, it seems), but then as she’s beckoned onto her religious journey, she just gets continually more and more exhausted with each new reality-shattering biblical figure who appears, oscillating between a genuine curiosity and tired snark. Apparently she and Smith didn’t have the best on-set relationship, evidenced by them never working together again, but none of that behind-the-scenes strife dinged the film whatsoever. If anything, it might have ended up helping her overwhelmed and sardonic character.
Bethany’s world is forever changed one night when the voice of God, the Metatron, appears in her room, wonderfully played by Alan Rickman. I feel like he didn’t get a lot of comedic roles (all I can think of is Galaxy Quest, and voicing Marvin the robot in the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie), but he’s just fantastic here, delivering each line with an important gravitas, or an exhausted sarcasm. He tells Bethany the enormous stakes of the movie and beckons her to this holy quest, but ultimately the choice is hers to make. He also explains that anyone who claims to have spoken to God are actually referring to him (or they’re just talking to themselves), as human beings lack the capacity to withstand the “awesome power” of God’s true voice, a great line which I actually really connect with (PERSONAL SPIRITUAL BELIEFS ALERT). Personally, I think that if there were a divine creator and an explanation of the meaning of the universe, it would be incomprehensible to mere mortals like us to wrap our minds around, so the Metatron talking about how it took then five Adams’ heads exploding before figuring out they should have a go-between God and man is extremely funny to me.
I feel like I have to talk about the score at this point, as it feels so especially incredible and grand, perfectly underscoring the Metatron’s grave description of how reality itself is on the line. The composer is Howard Shore, who had previously done scores for films like Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and Ed Wood, and just a few years after this would do all the music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This guy is a heavy hitting composer, and the score of the movie definitely reflects that, big, sweeping motifs, complete with choir-accompaniment for some sections, all very appropriate for a biblical epic such as this. The sound design also really stands out to me (feels weird to be saying that about a Kevin Smith movie); I really like the sound of locusts mixed in with the roller blade sounds of the Stygian triplets zipping in and out of frame, as well as the demonic noises of Hell underscoring whenever the demon Azrael makes an appearance (more on them later).
The Metatron (wearily) explains Bethany will first be helped by two prophets, who are none other than Jay and Silent Bob, appearing on the scene to save her from danger (accompanied by a great piece of music, also used over the credits, that’s stuck in my head since high school). We get a great explanation on why they’re even in Illinois: they traveled west to find the famed Shermer, Illinois, the town that John Hughes’s most famous movies take place in, in hopes of finding some Molly Ringwald-types to score with, only to find out the town doesn’t really exist (“Movies are fucking bullshit…” Jay grumbles). Bethany is beyond skeptical, but the timing of meeting two guys heading for Jersey is too coincidental for her, so she asks if she can come with.
On its surface, it’s really bizarre that Jay and Silent Bob are here in the middle of this epic religious story with world-ending stakes. But, honestly, this is the best usage of them since Clerks, as they function perfectly as comic relief characters within a ensemble cast. Jay is actually very funny throughout the whole movie, chiming in to interrupt a group conversation for a dumb quip, or misinterpret what’s being said. It never gets pushed too far into seeming obnoxious, and he actually does end up contributing to the pilgrimage in mostly accidental ways, like suggesting they actually speak to Cardinal Glick about closing the church (to which the Metatron is stunned by, “Good lord, the little stoner’s got a point,”) to swiping his golf club after they’re unsuccessfully tossed out, a petty theft which ends up saving their lives. Meanwhile, Kevin Smith seems to have perfected the art of cartoonish pantomime, jerking his head and bugging his eyes in reaction to Jay or a crazy situation, but it never feels exaggerated to a ridiculous degree that it feels like too much. My favorite bit involving Bob is early on at the diner with Bethany, when Jay cracks wise at him (“There’s nothing worse than watching a fuckin’ fat man weep”), Bob whips his head toward him in a targeted scowl, exhaling a big plume smoke from his drag of cigarette, just expertly timed after Jay finishes his thought. How Jay and Bob work as featured players is another story (more on that coming up…), but they’re really at their best here.
Soon after, we meet Rufus, who literally crash-lands from the sky before Bethany, Jay and Bob, without a scratch on him. He was the untold-of thirteenth apostle of Jesus Christ, omitted from the Bible for reasons you can probably determine yourself. Upon questioning, he opens up with stories about hanging with Jesus (“You knew Christ?” “Knew ’em? Shit, nigga owes me twelve bucks!”) and how Jesus was actually black, who ended up whitewashed in the New Testament (“A black man can steal your stereo, but he can’t be your savior.”) Chris Rock plays Rufus, right at the cusp of his brief movie career, and much like all of those roles, it more or less just feels like you’re watching him do mini-Chris Rock routines. He’s not a bad actor, though, and it wasn’t all that distracting, given that all of these spiritual characters are just vessels for Bethany to work out her faith through. His main message is about the danger of unwavering belief, and how it’s better to have ideas, which can grow and evolve over the passage of time (“You can change an idea, changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it.”) There’s certainly good in that, to not being shackled down to the whims of the rules and moralities of those who lived in a time so completely removed from your own life, be it religious, political, what-have-you. It’s a nice message, one that Rock manages to sell pretty well.
We also later meet Serendipity the muse, played by Salma Hayek, introduced stripping in some bumfuck bar in the middle of nowhere. As she explains, she was once the divine inspiration for artists throughout history, but begged God to send her to Earth to create her own masterpiece, only to be stricken with writer’s block upon being given human form. It’s a cute backstory, but she feels a little superfluous as a character. When we get to this point, we’re already coming off of one spiritual figure explaining at length who they is and their views on the Bible and humanity’s interpretation of it, so now we’re just getting another helping of the same thing, but this time, talking about how women get screwed in the history of religion instead of black people. We also get another shot at John Hughes, where Serendipity mentions she was the inspiration for nine of the ten highest grossing films of all time, excluding the Hughes-written Home Alone (“Somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of shit.”) Did Smith have a bone to pick with John Hughes? Anyway, Hayek is a fun presence in the movie, and her report with Bethany is pretty sweet, but she unfortunately doesn’t have a whole lot to do.
Also in the film is Azrael (played by Jason Lee), a demon who basically serves as our shadow antagonist. He’s the one who sent Bartleby and Loki the newspaper about Glick’s church, knowing they’d go there, go to Heaven and undo all of existence. As he explains towards the end, he’d much rather not exist and take everything else with him rather than go back to the fiery depths of Hell. He and his minions, the Stygian triplets, a trio of stone-faced punk teenagers on skates, have been pulling the strings all along. I hesitate to call him superfluous like Serendipity, because he’s pivotal to the plot enough that you really need him, most importantly as he’s the one who tells Bartleby and Loki that God and company are out to kill them, which sews the seeds of Bartleby’s character turn. I think it doesn’t help that none of the hero characters have any interaction with him throughout the film, and by the time we get towards the end and Azrael has the gang tied up as Bartleby and Loki are already at the church, it kind of ends up feeling like a pit stop. We finally get into Azrael’s backstory as he and Serendipity snipe back and forth, and meanwhile, we’re just waiting to finally get to the church, something we’ve been invested in (and dreading the repercussions of) the whole movie. Jason Lee gives a good performance (the “Holy Bartender” scene and his psychotic glee after shooting a man to death for a stupid joke is pretty wonderful) but it felt like they could have sewn his relationship a little closer to the main story. Perhaps he could have shown up as a random guy to Bethany at some point to give some subtle discouragement. I get he’s like the puppet master, but he felt a bit too side-lined.
The biggest obstacle Azrael sends our heroes’ way is the Golgothan, a literal shit demon that materializes at the bar they find Serendipity at. It’s really, really gross, as we see the toilet bubbling over with fecal matter, filling the entire stall, and this disgusting form emerging from it. We get an explanation of what the fuck the thing is; as Serendipity explains, it was born of the feces expelled from all the worst dying sinners who were crucified back in Jesus’s time. We also get the clearest example of the limitations of the film’s budget, and Smith’s experience as a director, that a gang of people attacking (and getting quickly defeated) by the Golgothan is all shown off-screen, as we hear cartoon fight sound effects as Chris Rock and Salma Hayek make funny faces to camera reacting to it. I guess the Golgothan is supposed to represent a more legitimate threat posed by Azrael, but it really doesn’t seem worth it, especially how Silent Bob quickly disposes of him by a light spray of his aerosol (which he carries around thanks to Jay’s farts, very classy). The creature’s origins are kind of interesting, but Hayek’s explanation is very rushed and a little stumbling as she attempts to stuff a Molotov cocktail behind the bar while blowing through her lines. Overall, it just felt like a little too juvenile. I love me some dumb shit, but it feels too out of place in a movie like this.
We take a brief detour from the story for Loki to settle a long-delayed score of his: targeting the Mooby’s corporation. An amalgam of Disney and McDonald’s, they’re a huge media and merchandising conglomerate, built upon a false idol of their corporate mascot, Mooby the Golden Calf. Certainly a bit on the nose, but I guess it still works. This scene kind of picks at a much larger topic of how America basically worships pop culture figures, and is beholden to corporations more so than any sort of faith, something you could make an entire movie around by itself, but here, it’s just this side mission that Bartleby and Loki embark on. It feels like you could cut it from the movie and not lose a whole lot, but it does work to legitimatize how dangerous the two angels are, as Loki shoots and kills an entire board room of executives (save one) with not a hint of remorse. This is after Bartleby runs through the laundry list of sins all of the men are guilty of, truly despicable acts of greed, abuse, and disgusting sexual violations. This is definitely a scene you don’t want to think too much more into in a film where Harvey Weinstein is the executive producer. That’s all I’ll say of the matter.
Worlds collide when Bethany and crew hop a train to Jersey, where Bartleby and Loki just so happen to be riding as well. This leads to a great back-and-forth between Bethany and Bartleby (the two Bs); when Bethany brings up her divorce, Bartleby says he was “dumped” once, being cast out by God, and the two proceed to bond from there. They reflect on their complicated history with God, one being more literal than the other, of course, as Bartleby speaks in vague terms (“One day, God just stopped listening. I kept talking, but I got the distinct impression He wasn’t listening anymore.”) This is after Azrael has told the angels God is out for them, so you can see Bartleby’s taken that to heart and is reevaluating his outlook on the matter. Bethany, meanwhile, is growing weary of this holy crusade, and is thankful to have a seemingly normal person to vent to. Affleck is pretty good in this scene, you can see the gears turning in his head as he speaks of his relationship with God, and his demeanor slowly change as Bethany drunkenly tells him the details of her trip to Jersey. This leads to all parties confronting each other, and similar to the unseen Golgothan fight, we get some somewhat clumsily directed fighting (although I love the bit when Jay is knocked out, prompting Bob get incensed, don a cartoonish grimace and bum-rush Loki), resulting Bob tossing Bartleby and Loki from the train (he gets his one speaking moment, per usual, telling a confused fellow passenger, “No ticket,” an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade reference.)
As we get Bartleby and Bethany to their lowest points, after the train scene, both characters have to deal with a renewed crises of faith. Bartleby, once a watcher angel admiring God’s creation, is now bitter with how humanity was favored over his own kind, on how he was eternally punished for just one transgression while man gets excused time and time again (“They were given paradise, they threw it away. They were given this planet, they destroyed it. They were favored best among all His endeavors, and some of them don’t even believe He exists!”) Meanwhile, Loki, upon hearing that they’re being targeted from up high, softens, wishing to back down from their mission. This role-reversal is played out very well, with Bartleby becoming the passionate firebrand as Loki shirks down. This is a great scene between Affleck and Damon, as the two believably have their priorities switched. Loki initially tries to calm Bartleby down, but eventually breaks when he compares Bartleby’s ravings to Lucifer. He attempts to bow out of the whole thing, but Bartleby more or less overpowers him (“We’re going home, Loki! And no one, not you, not even the Almighty Himself, is going to make that otherwise.”)
Camping out for the night off the train, Rufus drops a bombshell when asked point-blank by Bethany why the hell she has to deal with all of this: she’s actually the great-great-great-etc.-grandniece of Jesus Christ, the Last Scion. This proves to be the last straw for her, leading her to break, furiously pounding at the lake water and screaming to the Heavens. It’s then the Metatron reappears (being able to walk on water, of course), apologizing for not telling her the truth sooner, believing she wasn’t ready. As funny as he was before, Alan Rickman plays this scene beautifully, acting incredibly sympathetic, telling Bethany her situation is comparable to when he had to tell a young Jesus he was the son of God (“It’s unfair to ask a child to shoulder that responsibility, and it’s unfair to ask you to do the same. I sympathize, I do. I wish I could take it all back. But I can’t. This is who you are.”) Bethany ends this scene with a somewhat resigned, but still genuine acceptance of this information and her selfless quest, contrasted with Bartleby’s selfish twist.
Things do feel like they start to drag a bit after this point. This movie runs almost exactly two hours at the start of the credits, Smith’s longest movie, and it definitely starts to feel it by the end. Azrael captures our heroes and we find out his whole deal, as I explained earlier, but Cardinal Glick’s blessed golf club makes quick work of him. When the gang gets to the church, everyone has been slaughtered, with Bartleby basically biding his time before he can directly confront our heroes. Meanwhile, Loki has already torn his wings off so he become mortal and get drunk, effectively having resigned himself to play lackey to his crazed compatriot’s plan. But Bartleby kills him anyway, after he makes one last tipsy attempt to stop him. Here, we get some feeble attempts to thwart Bartleby, and some bumbling by Jay in shooting off his wings, unintentionally helping him to become mortal. Meanwhile, Bethany has her own revelation and goes off on her own with Bob. The big question posed toward the end of the movie is where the hell is God in all this? The Metatron reveals that every once in a while, God takes a day trip to Earth to play skeeball, but this time, He never returned and no one knows where He is. Early in the movie, we see an unidentified homeless man being beaten and put in a coma, which ends up making national news, and Bethany correctly surmises that it’s actually God, unable to return to Heaven due to His mortal body being trapped in limbo. She removes him from life support, killing him, resulting in the grand return of God just as Bartleby is about to enter the church. Yes, God Herself… played by Alanis Morissette. She ends up mercy killing Bartleby by speaking aloud, causing his mortal mind to explode in a delightfully violent mess.
I feel like so much of this review is just an information dump in explaining the characters and the elements of the plot; I’m already almost at 5000 words and I feel like I haven’t done a whole lot of deep criticism into this. Good reviews usually have personal apologies towards the end of them, right? Anyway, Bethany is killed by the sheer power of witnessing God’s ascension, but like any self-respecting member of Christ’s bloodline, she is resurrected, and as the Metatron tells her, is now carrying the new Last Scion, giving her the child she’d wished for after all. Between this and actually getting to speak to God (albeit a one-sided conversation), Bethany is a woman reformed (kind of). We get goodbyes from the Metatron, Rufus and Serendipity, all quickly refraining the messages they instilled unto Bethany, before they and God enter the misty church and the giant doors close, wrapping up the entire journey, with only the mortals remaining: Bethany, Jay and Bob. And now because our world is finally safe, and because this is a Kevin Smith movie, Jay, upon being told Bethany is pregnant, tells her women can have sex well into their third trimester. CUT TO CREDITS.
Dogma has a lot of ideas on its plate, but it does manage to simplify where it needs to and communicate everything in a mostly effective way. Although I feel like nostalgia is coloring more of my opinion here than with Clerks. Its universal appeal to the listless and authority-spurning youth aside, Clerks still really holds up as a character piece, and its indie charm works in its favor to boost its enjoyment. This movie, its ideology on religion, and its more blatant crude humor and occasional violence really seems like it’s better catered to a susceptible younger audience. I did get quite a few laughs out of it, and I feel like its message is very wholesome, but I certainly don’t put this on the same level of Clerks. Kevin Smith was ambitious to be sure with this project, both in the scope of the story and the direction, but it kind of feels like he bit off more than he could chew, or more than he wanted to, as evidenced by almost all of his future films scaling things back. But I still think Dogma is worth a spin if you haven’t seen it. It’s not the scathing religious satire it was exaggerated to be, but it’s just blasphemous enough as a fun watch.
One thought on “ReView Askew: Dogma (1999)”
Ah ‘Dogma’. Another I haven’t really watched since it came out.
As someone who is somewhat culturally Catholic (my parents are atheists but my wider family is all Irish Catholic and I guess I instinctively see the Catholic Church as my tribe) and who is probably technically agnostic (but leans much more towards the ‘believer’ end) this was a fascinating film for me in my late teens. It still is really interesting since it is a satire written by a believer, albeit one with sort of an idiosyncratic take on things.
I do remember there were parts in it that make me uncomfortable in a personal views kind of way but it does feel like an important film with something to say, and even where I disagreed with it it didn’t feel malicious or anything like that.
Another one I might have to take a second look at.