Remarkably wishy washy
Higher Ground tries to do too much. In exploring one woman’s faith, the screenplay dwells on her childhood, her family, and members of a congregation. A full half hour (about one-third of the movie) passes before Farmiga appears.
Farmiga’s performance is remarkably wishy washy. She scarcely seems like the actor who played passionate Sophie in Never Forever, or earned an Oscar nomination as frequent flyer Alex in Up in the Air. Even Officer Colleen Goodwin in Source Code has more chutzpah than Corinne Walker.
Farmiga told The New York Times Magazine in 2006 that she was seeking good, strong roles. It’s disappointing that she doesn’t command this one.
Young family escapes tragedy
Teenaged Corinne (Taissa Farmiga, the director’s sister) is smitten with her classmate Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), a rock singer. Soon she’s with child, and the two marry.
Nearly losing their baby daughter in a tour bus accident, the couple gives thanks to God. In 1979, adult Corinne (Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) are baptized in a lake as they join an unspecified evangelical group.
Director tries to do too much
Shying away from conflict, the director surveys too many cast members who, collectively, don’t make much of an impression. Great actors like John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) are wasted here.
Compounding the problem is the washed out color palette. Like the drab house dresses that the womenfolk wear, this cinematic choice makes a dull story duller.
Plot device flops
Corinne’s best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk in a rousing performance) sustains permanent damage after brain surgery. It’s an overt plot device that I found offensive, “divine punishment” for the sexy, outspoken Polish wife and mother.
A surreal, sensual scene between the two friends feels awkward and goes on too long. The film can’t decide whether Corinne’s crisis is more feminist or spiritual, and falters in both areas.
As Corinne receives the news about Annika at the hospital, her deer-in-the-headlights stare into the camera is worse than silly. It didn’t move me at all.
“You are worshipping at the altar of yourself,” a Bible-quoting shrink chides Corinne when she confesses her need for sexual satisfaction. Even here, Farmiga is tentative and unconvincing.
The character’s quest to explore sex, literature and intelligent conversation is never fully realized. She just seems like a woman who got married too soon for the wrong reasons.
Corinne “feeling nothing” but never transcends her funk. After leaving her husband, she goes to a library to explore new thinking. She flirts with a literary Irish mailman (Sean Mahon), only to discover that he is married.
A preacher at heart
Corinne is most passionate when she’s speaking to the congregation. Women aren’t allowed to preach, as the pastor’s wife reminds her.
No wonder Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz) feels threatened. Corinne speaks honestly from her heart and experience. He hides behind preachy sermons.
Strangely, Corinne returns to the church after leaving Ethan. Now an outcast, she takes up the microphone and shares. Pastor Bill barely protests.
Emotion stirs in Annika’s eyes, and sorrow fills Ethan. Others ignore her numbly. Sheep show more emotion than this.
Late in the film, Corinne gazes at crosses atop the church. A dog approaches the edge of the woods, gazing back at her.
Nature symbolizes the wildness and mystery of following the Divine. Corinne stays tethered to what she knows, a belief in suffering and sacrifice.
Higher Ground is based on This Dark World by Carolyn S. Briggs. (3 out of 5 stars)
Higher Ground 2011 / R / 1 hour, 49 min
Cast Overview: Vera Farmiga, Norbert Leo Butz, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin, Joshua Leonard, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Donna Murphy, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook
Director: Vera Farmiga
Genre: Drama, Spirituality