At first glance, Pastor Eli (David Rysdahl) seems the picture of calm piety at the pulpit; behind him is wood paneling polished to a patina of soft reflection and the gentle jewel tones of stained glass set alight by the morning sun. But Eli's sermon, delivered with soothing insistence, falls on stony ground, even though the small congregation wants to believe in him. Jennifer Gerber illustrates their worshipful focus by positioning Eli at the center of her widescreen frame, an effect that can make a modest potluck look like the Last Supper.
The visual cues in her accomplished first feature emphasize the disconnect between Eli and his Southern Baptist flock, which screenwriter Samuel Brett Williams (adapting his own play) details in a backstory about familial obligation and suppressed desires. Eli's devoted wife June (Lucy Faust) understands that his upright manner masks emotional limitations, but she's still surprised by how much his sexual relationship with enthralling drifter Daniel (Zachary Booth) affects both the private man and public preacher.
Arkansas native Gerber and cinematographer John Wakayama Carey capture the wild beauty of Hot Springs while exploring the community's rigid mores. The Revival is packed with bone-deep performances that unfold in surprising ways, such as Eli's enthusiastic booster Trevor (Raymond McAnally) espousing his personal philosophy while handling the innards of a freshly killed deer. Trevor clings to God and guns like a life preserver, and in Gerber and Williams' insightful drama, he's just another lost soul whose evangelical zeal conceals the fear that he can't save himself.