The centerpiece of Hail, Caesar!’s mid-century Hollywood satire is the eponymous film-within-a-film itself, an overwrought biblical epic in which a skeptical Roman centurion played by George Clooney has a literal come-to-Jesus moment. Risen, whose plot can be described in exactly the same way, never inspires one of its own.
Co-writer/director Kevin Reynolds doesn’t give the same graphic play-by-play of the crucifixion that The Passion of the Christ did, instead using death and resurrection as the occasion for a proto–police procedural. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is called upon by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to locate the Nazarene’s missing body — the name Jesus Christ is never uttered — lest his followers claim he has indeed returned from his tomb, thus calling established order into question. Cliff Curtis is appealingly low-key as Christ, humble in a way that the film around him would have done well to emulate.
Despite not doing much more than preach to the choir, Risen is still more nuanced than the lion’s share of recent faith-based dramas. Clavius’ characterization is easily its most three-dimensional aspect; less hateful oppressor than overworked middle manager, he regards his mission not as a polytheistic call to arms but as a fire he has to put out in order to get some rest and move on to whatever’s next. That the film itself is never as doubtful of what’s transpiring as he is makes his eventual revelation feel like a matter of course, free of the grand dramatic heft its we-told-you-so plotting precludes.