In Don Verdean an archaeologist and dueling pastors seem to be trying to find ways to bolster people’s faith, but it all finally boils down to feeding their own egos. We have to keep in mind this is very broad satire from Jared and Jerusha Hess, the creative team behind Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. Here, the satire centers on that facet of religion that is so open to criticism because they focus not so much on the message as they do on trying to prove themselves.
Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is an itinerant, and for the most part untrained archaeologist who goes around to churches with his admiring assistant Carol (Amy Ryan) showing his discoveries and selling his book. He connects with flashy pastor Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride) who commissions him to find Goliath’s skull. Don fabricates the discovery, but Tony is pleased to have something that will bring people flocking to his church. Tony’s rival, Pastor Fontaine (Will Forte), begins to create doubt in the discovery, but by then Don is after “the Holy Grail of biblical artifacts”—which is, of course, the Holy Grail. When a Chinese billionaire gets involved, Don again begins making things up.
The character Don Verdean doesn’t seem quite fleshed out. His goal really does seem to offer people something to believe in, yet he is so morally weak that he really only gives us more reason to doubt the truth he wants us to believe. Don’s weakness is a terrible flaw, but we may be willing to forgive that weakness when we compare him to the two pastors in the story who for all their religious platitudes are really all about self-aggrandizement. It is this that the filmmakers use for the basis of the satire in the film.
While I agree that there are many charlatans in the religious world, these are just a bit too easy to make fun of. Those who seek to bring others to faith, whether pastors or lay, have their own sets of frailties. While those flaws may seem to negate the very message they bring, sometimes they may become examples of grace. There is a sense in which the film tries to do that with Don’s shortcomings, but it doesn’t quite get there.