There was a deacon in my childhood ward that badly wanted to be a soldier when he grew up; he went all out with the camouflage, shooting, and playing “steal the flag” in the woods with glowsticks (a piece of rural Mormon culture that I hope does not die with the decline of Latter-day Saint BSA troops).
However, he changed his mind abruptly after watching the Omaha beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, which I suspect modified his idea of what battle looked like from some PG-13 situation–everyone is killed with one shot, the enemies lack basic marksmanship, and at the protagonist receives an inconspicuously bloodless wound–to the more realistic R (limbs getting removed with .50 caliber machine guns).
The fact is that “we are what we eat” also applies to media. While as Latter-day Saints we are rightly concerned about a diet of dark, heavy material, by not sometimes including R-rated material in our media diets we run the risk of:
1) Not having access to potentially moving or insightful content because of an R label.
2) Consuming disproportionately infantile content because we are limiting our media diet to a universe where people get shot and never die and never get stressed out enough to use the F-bomb.
R-rated movies often deal with realistic, gritty scenarios, and sometimes they are more profound and impactful because of the realism. Life in an existence where tyrants often reign with blood and horror is sometimes R-rated, and art needs to speak about those situations too. Of course, there are some A-grade, absolutely stellar films where the person dying a slow and painful death never gets around to dropping the F-bomb (Wit, for example), so R-rated material is not necessary for greatness, but the fact is that there are also films that do include that language, and in a world with a dearth of truly moving content (at least compared to what it should be), cutting out all of those severely limits your options for experiencing and engaging profound cinema.
I realize that I’m not making a particularly unique argument here, and I get the sense that the “R-rated rule,” the use of the MPAA guidelines as a bright line for what to watch, has attenuated over the past decade or two, with it being more of a thing of 1990s, Utah-corridor Mormonism than other contexts. In terms of Church pronouncements, it is clear that the Church doesn’t officially hold to that rule anymore (Mormonr has recently come out with their full, helpful historical analysis on the “R-rated rule”), and I’ve found the Common Sense Media site helpful for knowing whether a movie is appropriate for me and my kids. Consequently, I don’t want to exaggerate the power of the R-rated rule in our culture (you can tell when somebody hasn’t been that involved in recent Mormonism when they’re still arguing against 1990s cultural things that aren’t really things anymore.) Still, when done with care and caution, incorporating some select R-rated movies into a media diet can be beneficial for one spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually.
When I started watching R-rated movies, I experienced a month or two of absolute cinematic joy on a level that I doubt even a Spielberg or Tarantino has experienced; every evening was like watching Star Wars for the first time every night for a month as I worked my way through library version of the R-rated greats all at once. However, I also learned that not following the rated R rule doesn’t mean that all rated R movies are fair game (which obviously goes without saying when one thinks about it for more than a moment). There are still some genres that are bright red lines for me. I don’t see anything “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy,” about the torture horror genre (Saw, Hostel, etc.), for example, so for me personally I do think viewing those films would be a sin.There is no education to justify the sensationalism (although I’ve heard that for surgeons they aren’t that sensational–“that’s not what a severed arm looks like!”)
So with that, below is a list of R-rated analogs to Sound of Music; these are R-rated (or MA-rated) films and series that, in my opinion, are some of the most impactful gems that a member could miss if they hold to a hard and fast R rule. Being on this list doesn’t mean that they’re perfect, or don’t convey the occasional bad messages, but they all artistically convey a message about the human condition, society, God, faith, truth, or something else important, that makes them worth watching (even if it involves some fast forwarding every now and then). Readers will notice some overlap with an earlier list I made. In no particular order.
Succession (HBO series)
The Way Back (2020 Film)
Slum Dog Millionaire
There Will be Blood
The Kingdom of Heaven
A Serious Man
The Passion of the Christ
Saving Private Ryan
The Thin Red Line
The Hurt Locker
Macbeth (the Michael Fastbender version)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Once Were Warriors
Godfather Parts I, II, and (so sue me) III
Glenngary Glen Ross
Lives of Others
Little Miss Sunshine
Short Term 12
The Big Short
Silver Linings Playbook
Requiem for a Dream
City of God
Son of Saul
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Good Will Hunting
Better Call Saul