Twenty-five years ago, a man named John Bolin came up with the idea of creating a gospel-themed stage show that would appeal to teenagers. The result was The Thorn. That production has morphed and grown over time. It has toured the country, entertaining more than a million people, teens and others, in the process. Now the show has been turned into a feature film, sort of. Hitting theaters nationwide for a two-night event, the release is a recording of the live performance, with new scripted scenes added to make it slightly more cinematic.
A framing device finds the aging disciple John in exile. He meets a young boy, a thief on the run. John tells him the story of Jesus. That’s when the movie switches over to the stage show. First we get a brief section on the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, and the birth of Christ. The bulk of the story, of course, focuses on those crucial final days of Jesus’s life: the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and the eventual resurrection.
What makes The Thorn unique, and ostensibly appealing to teenagers, is that it tells the tale via martial arts action sequences, interpretive dance routines, and aerial acrobatics. The stage is packed with performers, carrying out intricate choreography, all set to music. Romans fight with swords. Women spin on long swaths of fabric that hang from the ceiling. When Christ heals a paralyzed man, that man responds by launching into impromptu breakdancing moves. Dialogue is sparse, mostly delivered by Pontius Pilate during the second half. All of it is impressively orchestrated.
You can tell a lot has gone into mounting the production. It’s very much an immersive experience live, with people moving through the aisles, lighting effects, smoke and fog, a massive video screen in the background, and so on. Without a doubt, The Thorn would be a very cool show to see in person. Those elements read a lot differently onscreen, though. What would be overwhelming live is made a step or two distant by the recording process. You simply don’t get the same impact of being plunged into the Passion.
Problems like that can be maneuvered around. If you look at some of the best performance films – Jonathan Demme capturing Talking Heads in concert in Stop Making Sense, Spike Lee’s take on David Byrne’s American Utopia, Disney+’s filmed version of Hamilton -- strategic camera placement creates a sense of intimacy that compensates for the loss of immediacy. In other words, those directors knew how to pull viewers into the show, even as it’s being watched on a screen rather than on a stage. The Thorn directors Rob Stennett and Andrew Harmon lack that knowledge. Their cameras often seem to be in arbitrary places, and too-frequent cutting makes it intermittently difficult to follow what’s going on.
If you really want to see The Thorn but aren’t able to do it live, you may not care that much. It is a recording of the show, so in that regard it does let you see what the fuss is all about. As presented, however, it doesn’t really work as a film. The entire time I watched it, I felt myself wishing that I was seeing the performance right in front of my eyes. Clearly, the power comes from making people feel surrounded by the dancers, fighters, and acrobats. Viewing the movie only makes you aware of how much you’re missing out on.
out of four
The Thorn is unrated, but contains some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.