*** [3 out of 4 stars]
Richard Dutcher leads his "God's Army" fans into darker territory. But will they follow?
Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic material; 120 minutes.
Opening today everywhere.
Utah filmmaker Richard Dutcher isn't the first storyteller to discover that dark secrets lurk within the charming houses of small-town America. Look at David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," to cite one example.
But in "Brigham City," his dark and engrossing follow-up to his debut "God's Army," Dutcher introduces a frequently ignored element of small-town life -- the role of religion, in this case the LDS Church, in civic life.
Dutcher -- the movie's writer, director, producer and star -- plays Kirtland County Sheriff Wes Clayton, who keeps the peace in the sleepy town of Brigham, Utah (the movie was filmed not in Brigham but in Mapleton, which matters only to locals). Wes also keeps the town's secrets, as bishop in the LDS ward. Police calls are usually no more serious than a scuffle on a construction site, though Wes tells his eager deputy Terry (Matthew A. Brown, the star of "God's Army") that he worries what impending economic growth may do to Brigham's rural charms.
Then Wes finds a dead woman on the edge of town. Nearby is an abandoned car with California plates. Wes tries to hush up the crime, fearing panic from the townsfolk. "This is just another exit ramp -- it could have happened in any town," Wes tells Terry. But while the FBI investigates the woman's death, a second murder occurs -- this time of a young Brigham woman.
Dutcher devises a crackerjack murder mystery, surprising at many turns, and his skills at storytelling are greatly improved from "God's Army." Dutcher also is more at ease behind and in front of the camera. His visual sense is sharper, his handling of actors is assured (he draws a strong performance from Wilford Brimley, in a small role as Wes' mentor), and his characters are more richly and realistically defined -- and playing a sheriff with a painful past is a better fit for him than playing the world's oldest young LDS missionary. (Dutcher doesn't flinch in his depictions of murder either, which prompted the movie's PG-13 rating.)
The film carefully explores church life -- FBI agent Meredith Cole (Tayva Patch), the outsider looking in, is surprised by young priesthood holders carrying trays of bread and little water cups at a sacrament meeting -- and how people rely on their faith in crisis. One of the more emotional scenes involves Wes' secretary, played by Carrie Morgan, leading a prayer when a local girl goes missing.
Not that the church's influence is always a good thing. Wes' dual role as chief lawman and church leader sometimes causes internal conflict, as he is privy to secrets as a bishop that would prompt a sheriff to make arrests. There's a strange moment when Wes calls out the town's men to go house to house, two by two like missionaries, to search for that missing girl -- something that, if this were a real investigation, would have the ACLU howling in protest.
By raising issues of the intermingling of the temporal and spiritual, "Brigham City" goes for more than entertainment -- and raises Dutcher from being a cheerleader for the LDS Church to becoming a serious chronicler of the Mormon experience.
BRIGHAM CITY ** 1/2
[2 1/2 stars out of 4]
Richard Dutcher, Matthew Brown, Tavya Patch, Carrie Morgan, Wilford Brimley, John Enos; rated PG-13 (gore, violence, mild profanity, racial epithets); Carmike 12, Ritz 15 and Villa Theaters; Century Theatres 16; Cinemark Jordan Landing Theaters; Gateway 8 Cinemas; Loews Cineplex Midvalley and Trolley Corners Cinemas; Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons.
Among the big accomplishments of Utah filmmaker Richard Dutcher's big-screen debut, "God's Army," was the fact that its story and characters were so appealing that it was able to draw in more than just its obvious LDS target audience.
His eagerly anticipated follow-up, the dramatic thriller "Brigham City," is a far riskier venture. Dutcher has confounded expectations by not making an "easy" film, such as a "God's Army" sequel. Instead, "Brigham City" deals with several touchy subjects and tells a far less sunny story, and in the process, he risks alienating that target audience. What's more, the strong religious tone of this piece could keep non-Mormons at arm's length as well.
"Brigham City" is also less enthralling than "God's Army," though it's not without its moments. For one thing, the dramatic story elements (which include some very specific religious content and some surprisingly deep-rooted philosophical questions about old-fashioned lifestyles versus modern society) are very promising.
But the main storyline, which involves a murder investigation, is far more problematic. Thankfully, it's not as lurid or as exploitative as most thrillers these days, but, frankly, it doesn't seem to jell nearly as well as the other material. (It would be interesting to see how the film might have turned out with the murder mystery excised completely; it could have been more rewarding.)
After handling a secondary role in his previous film, Dutcher is the main star this time, playing Wes Clayton, the sheriff of the fictional town of Brigham City, a sleepy little Utah community that's slowly joining the "real world." (Not to be confused with the real Brigham City).
Clayton is also an LDS bishop, and most residents address him by that title, rather than as "sheriff."
There's relatively little crime in Brigham, but all that is about to change. Returning from a routine disturbance call, Wes and his deputy Terry Woodruff (Matthew A. Brown, who had the lead role in "God's Army") stumble onto a mystery they find a seemingly abandoned vehicle from California, and, nearby, the body of a murder victim.
Believing it to be nothing more than an isolated incident, Clayton is happy to turn the case over to FBI agent Meredith Cole (Tavya Patch) and to conceal the crime's existence from the town, save for a selected few, including his secretary Peg (Carrie Morgan) and retired sheriff Stu Udall (veteran character actor Wilford Brimley).
Unfortunately, Clayton may not be able to keep it a secret for long, especially when there's evidence to suggest that the murderer may be a Brigham resident and that he may not be through killing.
It's not really fair to criticize the the film's production values, especially when you consider that Dutcher is working with a budget that is less than one percent of what most Hollywood movies cost. But from a technical standpoint, it doesn't seem quite as accomplished as "God's Army."
For what's primarily a mystery, the film also seems bit slow-paced and drawn out, though at least some of that can be attributed to Sam Cardon's score, which isn't all that subtle.
But to his credit, Dutcher the director gets good performances from his largely local cast, which includes Dutcher the actor, who makes a very sympathetic lead. The supporting cast is also solid, especially the always dependable Brimley and Morgan.
"Brigham City" is rated PG-13 for gore (fairly restrained, compared to most modern movies), violence (mainly gunfire) and use of a couple of mild profanities and racial epithets. Running time: 122 minutes.
Richard Dutcher's much-anticipated follow-up to "God's Army" is two things: a very bad murder mystery and a wonderfully moving spiritual drama.
"Brigham City" is set in the fictional Utah town of Brigham (not Brigham City, which is a real place), a small suburb with tree-lined streets where nearly everyone is Mormon and absolutely everyone knows everyone else.
Wes Clayton (Richard Dutcher, also director, writer and producer) is the local sheriff, as well as one of the town's LDS bishops. Most folks just call him "bishop," though, suggesting the degree to which Brigham's ecclesiastical and secular societies intertwine.
Wes is eager, at times bull-headedly so, to preserve Brigham's quaint, unsullied lifestyle. He's suspicious of the new construction going on, and won't even listen to news on the radio. The outside world is full of rapes and murders, he reasons. Brigham is nothing like that, and he plans to keep it that way.
His deputy is Terry Woodruff (Matthew A. Brown, who co-starred with Dutcher in "God's Army"), an enthusiastic young guy who keeps telling Wes that he can't hold the world at bay forever. That point is driven home when the two find a car with California plates abandoned in a field. Its owner lies nearby, murdered.
Wes insists it's an isolated incident -- and, since the victim was not from Brigham, the murderer was probably just passing through and is not anyone they know. Then a Brigham resident is found dead in the park, and FBI agent Meredith Cole (Tayva Patch), already investigating the first murder, gets more deeply involved. "Congratulations," she tells Wes grimly. "You've got yourself a serial killer."
Assisting Wes and Terry is their secretary, Peg (Carrie Morgan), a wonderful character with dry wit and great charisma. (Carrie Morgan is a Utah actress, as are most others, but she has the same great screen presence as the best Hollywood big-shots.) Her fiance, the newly converted Ed (Jon Enos) helps out, too, as does Brigham's retired sheriff Stu (Wilford Brimley), who is itching to be a lawman again. A local photographer (Richard Clifford) develops the first crime-scene shots for Wes, keeping everything under wraps for as long as possible.
A bunch of yokels having to face a problem they're so ill-equipped to deal with is a thrilling idea. Or are they ill-equipped? Their insulated existence, which leads to an "it can't happen here" mentality, also has its advantages: When a local girl is kidnapped, apparently by the same person behind the murders, Wes can easily mobilize every man in town into a regiment of two-man search parties. The fact that most are returned missionaries makes them all the more adept at going door-to-door (and already acquainted with having doors slammed in their faces by uncooperative townsfolk).
The murder-mystery aspect of the film is largely unoriginal. Dutcher's skill as a writer and director lies more in characters and moral dilemmas than in whodunits, and the scene in which the killer is revealed is the worst-written moment in the movie. (When Wes points out that, in a deviation from the killer's apparent pattern, one of the victims' hair was not red, the killer replies: "It was by the time I got through with it." Cringe.)
In terms of figuring out who the killer is, the distractions Dutcher gives us are second-rate. A good red herring, as it's called, makes us gasp and say, "THAT person did it?! Wow, what a great ending!" Then, when we find out we were wrong, we gasp again and say, "Wow! What an even BETTER ending!" The curveballs thrown in "Brigham City" are never convincing. And even if we do believe the person now being suspected is the murderer, the ensuing feeling is one of disappointment ("HE'S the killer? How lame"), not excitement.
But certain aspects of the mystery are well-done, particularly as they relate to the film's stronger theme, summed up by a Sunday School teacher: "Do we have to lose our innocence to gain wisdom?" When a small town is thrust into reality like this, whose fault is it? Could it have been prevented? SHOULD it have been prevented?
Characters' reactions to the various tragedies that befall Brigham over the course of the movie are both surprising and refreshing: In most movies, people get killed all the time with little emotional fanfare. The fact that a death elicits such concern here is, of course, exactly the point. This is a town -- and a movie -- where murders actually mean something.
Dutcher does fantastic work as the beleaguered Wes. (You'd look beleaguered, too, if you had to write, direct and star in the same movie.) He wisely ends the movie not with solving the murders, but with an emotionally powerful scene set in a sacrament meeting. It brings the film back around to its REAL point, with a spiritually profound resolution that features an achingly poignant performance from Dutcher.
"Brigham City" has its flaws. I'd like to have seen more examples of the townspeople's growing mistrust of each other, for example, and a few of the smaller speaking parts are amateurishly acted. But when it is good, it is very good. It depicts the people of Brigham as religious but not fanatical, and it's never preachy or heavy-handed: Small-town culture is the focus, not LDS doctrine. The tone is bittersweet and often somber -- an about-face from the generally sunny "God's Army." But the result is more insightful, more impacting and more emotionally charged than "God's Army," too. Richard Dutcher's winning streak is now at two, and counting.
Rated PG-13 for some violent images and intense thematic elements
1 hr., 50 min.
IN SOME RESPECTS, Brigham City, a calm, well-photographed and reasonably well-acted movie, is also a lunatic picture. Mostly, it's straightforward propaganda for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presenting a Utah town named Brigham as if it were the "before" scenes in a David Lynch picture. Though the action is set in the present, Brigham is 1950s friendly--tidy, and white as snow. The darkest secret is that one of the minor characters has (gasp) a closet full of pornography, for which he weeps forgiveness after it's been discovered. (This sinner has glasses and a chin beard; in a Cold War movie, he would have been the one with the hidden portrait of Stalin.)
Outside the pale of the town are suspicious places where beer and cigarettes can be purchased; inside the town, the most Dionysian revelry is the centennial parade. And watching over Brigham is a morose, sensitive sheriff, Wes (played by director/writer Richard Dutcher), who is also one of the town's 17 Mormon bishops. He's discovers--and tries to cover up--the first in a series of murders.
What Brigham City shares with Twin Peaks--and this is admirable--is its sense of heavy mourning for the victims of a serial killer; the face of one beams from a photo in fancy picture frame just as Laura Palmer's face did. The sheriff, a widower, and neither a violent nor a vengeful man, has a crisis that shakes his faith, and we feel his own guilt at how his prejudice against outsiders interferes with his solving of the case.
Dutcher's underplaying gives this by-now run-of-the-mill murder story some freshness. And the killer is no cackling madman, but a weeping victim of a compulsion. Fairer than that, I can't get. Dutcher has wrapped, in the easily sold package of a girl-killer movie, a plea for the reasonableness of the Mormon faith. An FBI agent, Meredith (Tayva Patch, a little on the frozen side), is attracted to the creed's simplicity. She has a partner who drops out of the story; he's a "jack Mormon," a Mormon reprobate, who says he's just taking a vacation from the faith. Dutcher immediately cuts to a pile of horse sh-- to show us what he thinks of such talk. And while the scenery is lovely in this Utah valley, Dutcher is just not up to Peter Weir in Witness in making the tenets of an extremely restrictive religion look as wholesome as the countryside itself. Beware of what this movie is trying to sell so uncritically. The idea of one man with authority for both faith and the law is far more terrifying than any number of lurking maniacs.
Brigham City (PG-13; 119 min.), directed and written by Richard Dutcher, photographed by Ken Glassing and starring Dutcher, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.
Middling thriller with an intriguing setting. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 (moderate violence). At the Two Boots Pioneer, Avenue A and East Third Street.
'BRIGHAM City" is a murder mystery set in a Mormon community that tries, with much less success, to do what "Witness" did in exploring an Amish town.
It certainly wouldn't have hurt if Mormon filmmaker Richard Dutcher - who directed the little-seen (at least in these parts) missionary drama "God's Army" - had access to Harrison Ford instead of playing the anguished hero himself in this mini-budgeted thriller.
Sheriff Wes Clayton recently lost his wife and young son in a car accident he blames himself for. He frets that a booming economy will bring the outside world into his isolated, small Utah town, where people still feel safe enough to leave their doors unlocked at night.
That all changes when the corpse of a raped woman turns up in the middle of town and Wes realizes he has a serial killer on his hands.
FBI agent Meredith (Tanya Patch) is sent to help Wes and his archetypical staff, which consists of an antsy deputy (Matthew A. Brown, the lead in "God's Army"), a spunky secretary (Carrie Morgan) and the crusty, retired sheriff (the venerable Wilford Brimley).
The actual mechanics of the investigation - including dusting all of the beer bottles consumed one evening at a tavern for incriminating fingerprints - are less involving than the depiction of Mormon culture, and Wes' attempts to reconcile his dual role as lawman and a bishop in the church.
Dutcher gives an earnest performance and some of the dialogue is tin-eared. But his instincts as a director aren't bad and he generates some genuine suspense, even if the two-hour running time cries out for trimming.
"Brigham City," which is much less explicit and violent than your average thriller these days, doesn't have an entirely convincing ending, either. But in some ways it's an interesting failure.
On its surface, Brigham City appears to be nothing more than your standard-issue serial-killer saga, but dig deeper and you find a story of religious pride and spiritual negligence that begs closer analysis.
Brigham City is the brainchild of one Richard Dutcher, who wrote, produced, directed and stars in the film. He is best known to independent-film audiences as the man responsible for God's Army, the Mormons-in-L.A. story that turned a healthy profit a few years back.
In Brigham City, Dutcher also populates the film with Mormons. He employs their beliefs to bring into question matters of faith and tolerance, yet he avoids doing the film in a preachy or sanctimonious way.
Dutcher plays Wes Clayton, a small-town sheriff who is also a bishop in the Mormon church. But he is an injured leader who recently lost his wife and son in a car accident. He wants to hide in the solitude and peacefulness of his small town, but reality invades when he finds a young stranger who has been brutally murdered. Wes writes it off as a quirk of fate, and even calls in the FBI so he won't have to deal with it. But soon, members of the town begin to die, forcing him to take action and face his demons.
Dutcher is passable as an actor, but his direction is above average, as he creates a mood of dread and indecision. He is not above employing old cinematic tricks to plant seeds of doubt as to who the killer is, but he doesn't lean on those tricks. Even the ending, though nothing spectacular, contains an element of truth that is disturbing but honest.
Given its limited release, the tendency will be to pigeonhole Brigham City as just another Mormon vanity project. But its careful study of a wounded man who sees his world and his sanctuary falling down upon him is actually reminiscent of classic old Westerns. It is a thoughtful film that deserves a wider audience.
**** [4 stars]
Starring Richard Dutcher, Matthew A. Brown, Wilford Brimley, Carrie Morgan, Jon Enos, Tavya Patch, Jeff Johnson and Wendy Gardiner. Directed, written and produced by Richard Dutcher. A Zion release. Drama/Mystery. Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic material. Running time: 120 min.
It's rare that filmgoers find themselves treated to the reinvention of a genre, particularly one as entrenched in formula and steeped in tradition as the murder mystery. Yet that is precisely what awaits audiences of "Brigham City," the newest film from "God's Army" director Richard Dutcher.
Like "God's Army," which centered on the experiences of Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, "Brigham City" is a film targeted first and foremost to Mormon audiences, a niche market which Dutcher successfully exploited to make "God's Army" one of the most significant independent successes of 2000. But whereas "God's Army" explored matters of faith related to those who must dwell and work in the outside world, "Brigham City" casts its eye on a community of faith as it struggles with the encroachment of the outside world. It's a scenario certain to give the film an appeal far beyond that of an exclusively Mormon audience, striking an especially resonant chord in like-minded communities where the values of faith and family are deemed most sacrosanct.
As with most small municipalities, the fictitious town of Brigham City, Utah feels more like an extended family than a city. Most of the townspeople are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--the Mormon Church's formal name--and know each other as either friends or acquaintances. For Sheriff Wes Clayton (Dutcher) and his deputy Terry ("God's Army" star Matthew A. Brown), this limits their policing activities to coping with overflowing irrigation ditches or corralling the occasional rowdy construction worker. In many ways, it's an easier job than the one for which Clayton is not paid, as bishop and spiritual overseer for one of the town's many Latter-day Saint congregations. A routine patrol stop at an abandoned roadside homestead, however, yields a gruesome discovery that threatens to change everything: the bloodied, brutalized body of a young woman.
Confirming the victim to be an out-of-state passerby, Clayton defers to the FBI, hoping to keep the incident sufficiently low-key so as not to disrupt Brigham City's fragile sense of security. But a second murder elevates the stakes and raises the specter of a serial killer in their midst--a veritable wolf in the fold who will surely kill again if not stopped. No sooner has the grim news been leaked than the usual array of media vultures descend upon a town that was once scarcely on the map, bringing Clayton's worst fears to fruition as peace and tranquility are displaced by fear, suspicion and paranoia. For Clayton, it's the beginning of an ordeal that will blur the line between his responsibilities as a lawman and a clergyman. For a citizenry once secure in the blessings of its devoutly Christian faith, it is the beginning of a trial that promises to put that faith to the ultimate test.
In the end, it is "Brigham City's" focus on faith that sets it apart from more conventional murder mysteries. While exploiting the genre's underlying narrative structure, Dutcher has courageously chosen to dispense with its essential purpose, making the solution of the mystery less an end in itself than a means to a more humanistic end. It's a delicate balancing act--maintaining the tension of a mystery while emphasizing genuine empathy with the characters--that pays off handsomely, a forceful defense of the power of faith that evokes genuine emotion without the tacky trickery of melodrama.
Excellent work by composer Sam Cardon and editor Michael Chaskes, along with a talented cast of newcomers and veterans (including Brown, Carrie Morgan, Jon Enos and Wilford Brimley) contribute to the effort.-Wade Major
*** [3 out of 5 stars]
Forget for a second that Brigham City is the latest "Mormon cinema" movie, that it's filled with references to spirituality and that all the main characters are Mormon.
Fact is, Brigham City works as a film, and that's all that really matters. Solidly written, suspenseful and moving, Brigham City follows the exploits of Wes Clayton (Richard Dutcher), a religious leader and head lawman in a small Mormon town besieged by a serial killer who preys on young women.
The film opens as Clayton finds a victim beside her car in a field. Since she was just passing through, the sheriff chalks the killing up to highway violence and calls in the FBI.
Determined to keep his small paradise from being polluted by the outside world, Clayton tries to keep a lid on the story. Over the objections of his young deputy, Terry (Matthew A. Brown), Clayton takes a back seat to the FBI in the investigation.
Another body is found, this time near the town square. As the case threatens to spiral out of control, Clayton uses every resource, including his standing as a religious leader, to find the killer.
Dutcher, who also wrote, produced and directed the film, adroitly weaves elements of faith with a well-told mystery. He doesn't shy away from his religious message, but he manages to tell a story at the same time.
As an actor, Dutcher conjures images of Michael Moriarty (TV's Law and Order), both in appearance and mannerisms. He holds the film together with an understated performance that is nevertheless intense and fascinating. Wilford Brimley does a nice turn as the town's retired sheriff, who is called in to help work on the case.
That said, Brigham City drags a bit in the middle, mostly because Dutcher spends a lot of time inside the church. Some of the scenes depicting religious services could have been shortened.
But like Dutcher's first movie, God's Army, Brigham City has a dual purpose: to entertain and to deliver a religious message.
Richard Dutcher's Brigham City is a rare find in the recent onslaught of murky religion-based thrillers and Satanic conspiracies--a modern crime thriller with a powerful and passionate spiritual message. In some ways it plays like a contemporary Western, with Dutcher as the upright county sheriff and local church bishop of a rural Utah town terrorized by a serial killer. Like the marshal of a peaceful frontier community, he first tries to shield his town from the horror, then pulls the good churchgoing citizens into a veritable posse. His cinematic skills may be a bit clumsy and his modern take on frontier justice naive, but his heart is in the right place. He creates a portrait of family values, community ties, and neighborly caring with an honest, unaffected forthrightness. Ultimately, fear and suspicion is the real snake in Eden.
Richard Dutcher, the writer/producer/director/star of "Brigham City" is a one-man cinematic Mormon missionary.
And, in the approach of a recent spate of religious movies, he's put his message in a film that tries to break free of the stigma that keeps most overtly faith-based productions out of general release. It's a good-faith effort, if not completely successful.
Ostensibly a modern thriller about a serial killer set loose in rural northwest Utah, "Brigham City" plays like a contemporary western, with an upright county sheriff, Wes (Dutcher), who is also a Mormon bishop.
Like the marshal of a peaceful frontier community, he first tries to shield his town from the horror, then pulls the good churchgoing citizens into a veritable posse, shattering constitutional rights in a desperate attempt to save a kidnapped girl from the killer.
It's a rather naive kind of frontier justice, with Wes crossing constitutional lines for the greater good, and Dutcher never quite gets around to dealing with the implications, as if those questions are unnecessary in a community where public welfare is more important than legal formalities.
Dutcher's heart is in the right place, creating a portrait of family values, community ties and neighborly caring with an honest, unaffected forthrightness, but his cinematic skills are clumsy and he directs with a measured carefulness that smothers spontaneity.
He lingers over every clue and draws out red herrings with numbing overkill. His blunt, dawdling direction (the two-hour film is a half -hour too long) is out of place in a genre where inference and economy rule, and his own central performance has neither the nuance nor the commanding presence to firmly anchor the film in a moral stolidity.
To its credit, "Brigham City" grapples sincerely with issues of faith, responsibility, fear and community solidarity versus insularity ("You had enough of the real world yet?" Wes asks his eager, restless deputy Terry (Matthew A. Brown) after the second murder). Dutcher's characters depend on their faith and resort to prayer in times of trouble, but he makes the case that fear and suspicion are the real snake in Eden.
Do people have to lose their innocence to gain wisdom?
That's the question at the core of Brigham City, an intriguing look at the Mormon Church wrapped around an equally engaging whodunit.
The film was written and directed by Richard Dutcher, whose well-received film God's Army, released in March 2000, told the story of a group of Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles.
Unlike many religion-based filmmakers today, Mr. Dutcher has two things going for him: He knows how to tell a story, and he's not dogmatic.
Not that Brigham City doesn't teeter perilously close to becoming an infomercial for the Mormon Church at times, but Mr. Dutcher always manages to pull back soon enough to keep the plot moving along.
Brigham City centers on low-key Sheriff Wes Clayton played by Mr. Dutcher who lost his wife, son and leg in a car accident a few years back.
Wes is also a bishop in the church, so well-liked that the townspeople refer to him simply as "Bishop."
Brigham City is in many ways the all-American dream: No one locks their doors, kids frolic worry-free in the parks, and the biggest concern Wes has is that the town is growing too fast.
When he happens upon a red Mustang with California plates of course! and finds the female owner of the car slaughtered in a nearby shack, Wes becomes determined not to let the news leak out. There's never been a homicide in Brigham City before (his dispatcher doesn't even know what a "Signal 7" is), and Wes is not going to let the outside world upset the serenity of his town.
"You signed up to protect these people and to serve these people," Wes tells Terry, his deputy. "And this kind of thing, they don't want to know anything about it."
Of course, that kind of head-in-the-sand approach only leads to disaster as more bodies start to turn up.
Now that the news is out, Wes deputizes former sheriff Stu (Wilford Brimley) and sets out to find the killer. "See, what we've got here is a little paradise," Stu says. "And nothing attracts a serpent like paradise."
Mr. Dutcher proves to be quite proficient in the science of "less is more." In one scene, Wes has to tell a couple that their teen-age daughter has been killed. Although the characters speak few words, the stark emotion practically spills from the screen.
Meanwhile, two Mulder-and-Scully clones from the FBI prowl around town, looking clownish in their dark trench coats and shades.
But as the film progresses, "Mulder" fades away as the female agent, Meredith, finds herself drawn to both the church and to Wes.
Mr. Dutcher keeps the suspense building to a climax that should surprise even the most seasoned of police-thriller veterans.
He then wraps things up with a simple, moving scene in church, illustrative of the power of love and forgiveness.
But even there he's smart enough to give the end of the film an interesting little twist that'll have people thinking as the credits roll.
In an age when more often than not religious films fall into the Left Behind paranoid-future-fantasy genre, it's refreshing to find someone more concerned with how to live here and now.
Produced, written and directed by Richard Dutcher.
Starring Richard Dutcher, Wilford Brimley, Matthew A. Brown
2 reels (out of four)
What happens when a serial killer comes to a quaint little Mormon town like Brigham City? What happens when a snake enters the Garden of Eden?
You guessed it. All hell breaks loose.
"Brigham City" is Richard Dutcher's follow-up to "God's Army." It is a traditional whodunnit murder-mystery flick (nothing new), but with a twist of spiritual discovery and sentimentality tied to it.
Wes Clayton (Richard Dutcher) is the town's sheriff and a local bishop. The people of Brigham City are predominantly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so most of the townspeople call him bishop.
Clayton loves that his town is relatively crime-free and intimate, and he wants to keep it that way. He is hesitant about the construction going on. He never listens to the news (which only talks about murders, wars, drugs) because it doesn't apply to Brigham City.
His life is Brigham City.
Terry (Matthew A. Brown) is the town's only other police officer. He is barely an adult and is always telling Wes that he shouldn't shut himself out of the real world.
Clayton no longer can shut himself out when the two stumble on an empty car with California plates. The driver of the car is dead, obviously murdered, in a barn next to the car.
Terry speaks of conducting an investigation in the town. Clayton assumes the murderer is from out of town, like the victim, so he lets the FBI handle the case and decides to keep the incident a secret from the townspeople.
Clayton's plan is soon blown over when the town's prom queen is found dead in a park.
It becomes apparent that there is a serial killer in Brigham City. Clayton's method in conducting the investigation is quite interesting. He gets the whole community involved in the process, like a service project.
Stu (Wilford Brimley) is a retired sheriff. Clayton deputizes him so he can help in the investigation.
Dutcher has a weakness in the murder-mystery genre. The plot isn't compelling. There is very little evidence that the killer is the killer until the climactic scene. Then, all of the motives are introduced and resolved in a poorly written scene ending in gun smoke.
Dutcher's strength lies in his ability to convey not only the culture of small Mormon towns, but the essence of their togetherness, the virtues of Mormonism and a single character's personal struggle.
Dutcher builds up his character, Clayton, nicely. Clayton's personal spiritual struggle is the most intriguing part of the movie.
An emotionally packed scene of a sacrament meeting -- with a superb performance by Dutcher where Clayton comes to terms with himself in the face of the community -- was the high point of the movie. In this scene, Clayton is only brought to his feet by the faith, dedication and commitment of the members of the ward. It is spine-tingling.
Besides showing the virtues of Mormonism, Dutcher also offers quite a bit of criticism of these small Mormon communities. A very memorable line, spoken by a teacher in Sunday school, which sums up the lesson and major message of the movie says, "Do we have to lose our innocence to gain wisdom?"
This little koan echoes throughout each scene of the film.
Opposite from my anticipation, the movie is not didactic -- it doesn't preach Mormon values. The LDS Church is merely a background effect for the film's action (as Catholicism is to "Godfather").
Dutcher's knowledge and accurate portrayal of the religion gives the film authenticity and demands interest.
A scant two years ago, Richard Dutcher took the world by storm with his runaway Sundance hit "God's Army." The film chronicled Dutcher's own experience as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- struggling with difficult companions, surviving investigators' hijinks, contracting cancer and dying.
For the first time, the general public was able to see the LDS Church's missionaries for what they really were -- real people and not blood-sucking vampires, as had previously been believed.
As a result, hundreds of millions of people joined the Mormon faith. But success did not come overnight for Dutcher.
"I had to wrestle with my own personal demons," said Dutcher. "I used to be so ashamed of my faith.
"The first drafts of 'God's Army' didn't even have Mormons in them. When we finally got into production, every time there was a shot with a missionary in it -- which was most of the film -- we'd try to put extras in front of them, or drive really loud trucks by so you couldn't hear what the Mormons had to say. It was a very difficult time in my life."
Dutcher decided the only way to break his timidity would be to stop writing movies about missionaries and actually go on a mission himself. But not even Dutcher could have foretold the transformation that would there occur.
"Getting cancer and dying really opened my eyes. I mean, it was like God pried 'em right open, gouged them out with his gaping celestial maw and then put tiny movie cameras in their places."
Church authorities have declined to comment on Dutcher's alleged translation and resurrection, but Dutcher is quick to defend himself.
"If you watch 'God's Army,' it's all over the place. I mean, there's no other possible interpretation of it."
While "God's Army" continues to astound critics and their families the world around, Dutcher may already have outdone himself with his sophomore effort, the epic Mormon sheriff film "Brigham City."
"Brigham City" follows Dutcher in yet another autobiographic role as a Mormon bishop sheriff who faces a difficult situation -- overcoming public ridicule.
"Mormon sheriffs have always been looked down upon by the general public," said Dutcher. "My hope is that this film will show Mormon sheriffs for what they really are -- real people. Not vampires."
"Brigham City" takes special care to show the human side of these Mormon sheriffs. In one scene, the sheriff saves a little boy from an actual blood-sucking vampire, and says, "Now see, that was a real vampire. You go tell your ma and pa that the non-vampiring Mormon bishop sheriff saved you from the vampire."
"We'd try to put the sheriff up against dogs, bicycles, the sides of barns, Catholics, or other non human creatures just to emphasize the difference," said Dutcher. "There's a great scene in there where [the sheriff] arm-wrestles a werewolf."
One of the more human moments of the film occurs when a rival Mormon deputy from a neighboring town is diagnosed with cancer but bravely decides to continue in the work, saying, "I'm going to die a Mormon deputy."
"That was also based on a personal experience," said Dutcher. "Back before my Mormon bishop sheriff gig, I mean. When I was still just a lowly, cancer ridden, 19th-century deputy. Man, I sure get a lot of cancer."
None can deny the sheer emotional force that propels Dutcher's films. It is, however, questionable if Dutcher went too far this time around.
For example, when the sheriff bestows his trusted rifle with "magical Mormon power" in order to take down an entire tribe of warfaring Indians with a single shot. Or when the sheriff is elected president of the world -- a position that does not exist -- and then declares world peace.
"Now, I don't know much about logic or physics or government, but I do know that, with God, all things are possible. Heck, I'm living proof. How many times have I been struck down in this life only to miraculously return from the grave? Four. And each time, God gives me a new mission. First it was 'God's Army.' Then, it was the making of 'God's Army.' Then, I did that Gap jeans commercial. Now 'Brigham City,'" said Dutcher.
All drama aside, "Brigham City" dazzles the eye with amazing special effects, compliments of astounding revenues from "God's Army." Working closely with Industrial Light & Magic, Dutcher was able to enhance his otherwise earthbound film with a unique and unprecedented space-opera twist.
"We added an outer-space dog fight just because we could. It didn't really fit into the plot so we made it into a flashback," said Dutcher. "That was also based on fact."
"Brigham City" also brings the talent of veteran Utah actor and virtual sunshine dispenser Wilford Brimley to the screen.
"At first, I was worried that Wilford was just going to turn the film into a giant Quaker Oats commercial," said Dutcher. "But then, when he did, I couldn't have been more pleased with the way things turned out."
Of course, some have criticized the lack of worldliness in Dutcher's films.
"I think it's crap," said Deseret News film critic Jeff Vice. "Needed much more nudity."
Vice may not be too far off, though, as it is rumored that Dutcher's third film will center around his own life experience as a French Renaissance-era Mormon prostitute -- an apt conclusion, perhaps, to this emotional trilogy.
"Hey," said Dutcher. "I'm just looking out for my people."
*** 1/2 [3 1/2 stars out of 4]
This fiercely fascinating murder mystery can help reintroduce filmgoers to an all-but-forgotten cinematic thrill: the important pleasure of serious, substantive conversation inspired by characters and issues encountered on screen.
Despite its laughably small budget ($1.2 million dollars), unconventional setting (a devout Mormon town in rural Utah), and some persistent problems in plotting, "Brigham City" features more vivid performances and richer, deeper emotional content than the noisy nonsense provided by most of today's big studio offerings. It also establishes Richard Dutcher, its 35-year-old writer/director/producer and star, as a wunderkind of truly terrifying potential. Mainstream Hollywood may continue to ignore his quirky, ferociously independent work behind the camera, but after this profoundly accomplished performance he will soon receive important offers for his startling skill as an actor.
Dutcher plays Wes Clayton, the soft-spoken, sad-eyed sheriff of picturesque, remote Brigham City. He's also a Mormon bishop beloved by his neighbors for his dual determination to serve them -- performing simultaneously as a temporal and a spiritual protector. As a matter of fact, Dutcher's kind, sweetly sorrowful face with its sharp, wary features hovering over a drooping moustache, suggests an aging guard dog, keeping a troubled eye on the flock he's been assigned to shepherd. Only as the movie unfolds do we learn the reason for the sadness that seems to emanate from the man like a cozy aroma: he's still mourning the loss of his wife and son in a tragic, somewhat mysterious accident that also left him limping, with a leg brace.
None of this prevents Wes from abandoning the comfortable patterns of his life when he discovers his town's first-ever murder victim: a young woman in a snazzy red car with California plates has been beaten to death and left in an abandoned cabin off the highway. Because she's an unidentified out-of-state resident the FBI gets involved, led by a brisk, no nonsense agent from New York (Tayva Patch) with no comprehension of Brigham City's Mormon ways. Aided by his go-getter deputy (Matthew A. Brown) and a crusty, grumpy retired sheriff who he's just deputized for the occasion (Wilford Brimley), Wes resolves to make his own progress on the case, with or without the co-operation of the Feds. As another murder shakes the town, and then another, the serial killings threaten to destroy Brigham City's sense of itself as a place of simple decency and old-fashioned virtue, far removed from the turmoil and corruption of the outside world. As the Wilford Brimley character wryly observes: "Nothing attracts a serpent like paradise."
The main character's fanatical determination to protect his home town's innocence, even at the cost of sacrificing all normal notions of legal procedures and civil liberties, leaves room for energetic debate. Is Wes a hero, or a religious zealot with no respect for personal privacy and human imperfections? Dutcher the director plays the issues up-the-middle, without unduly stacking his cinematic deck -- surprising maturity given his own role as the movie's star. There's also room for ambiguity about Brigham City's proud moral claims for itself -- some sophisticates might well view the town as stuffy and intolerant and meddling, rather than neighborly and moral. A particularly poignant moment involves the clearly illegal and highly dubious house-to-house search for murder evidence, organized by Wes. In one case, it exposes a secret cache of pornography tapes, hoarded by a lonely, twitchy mama's boy and amateur photographer. His profound, life-shattering humiliation at this discovery proves typical of the movie's attention to detail, and its balanced, affectionate approach to all its characters.
Nearly all those characters live their lives as committed Mormons -- not perfect role models by any means, but as flawed, fallen folk clinging to their faith with special fervor especially at a time of crisis. For outsiders to the LDS church, some of these details -- taking us inside the Sunday services at the Ward (neighborhood church) where Wes presides -- will prove fascinating, with the ring of unadorned authenticity. The visiting FBI agent also finds herself intrigued by Mormon life, but "Brigham City" remains far too subtle and nuanced to suggest that she's a potential convert. Unlike other murder mysteries in isolated religious settings, such as "Witness" or "A Stranger Among Us," this film never treats its characters as exotics or holy primitives: they are merely every day people, whose religious commitment remains a matter-of-fact, unremarkable aspect of their lives. This attitude doesn't stand in the way, however, of a lyrical and wrenching concluding scene, involving the sacrament of the Lord's Supper -- an even more haunting portrayal of communion (and community) than the famous conclusion of Robert Benton's Oscar-winning "Places in the Heart."
The shortcomings of "Brigham City" involve its too-conventional, almost formulaic organization as a who-done-it, with lots of manipulative red herrings to keep us guessing. When we finally meet the killer, the revelation proves believable but unsatisfying -- there's never the , "Aha! Now it all makes sense!" reaction that you get from the best mystery stories. Nevertheless, within its limitations the film remains a substantial achievement. Notable for its subtlety, substance, pacing, and loving sense of place (filmed in the director's hometown of Mapleton, Utah.)
When Wes discovers the body of the first murder victim, the movie communicates horror through his reaction, without ever showing us the actual corpse (or any other graphic gore). Dutcher, in other words, reminds us that first-class dramatists from Shakespeare (where MacBeth's first murder occurs off-stage) to Hitchcock (where Psycho's shower scene uses only shadows on a curtain, and blood slowly winding down the drain) understand that the imagination can deliver more powerful shocks than gruesome special effects. Rated PG-13 for its sensitive references to rape and murder, though for children who can handle a grim story about a serial killer, there's no splattered brains or gutter language to keep them away.
Richard Dutcher's last project, the remarkably accomplished "God's Army," told the story of Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles and became one of the most commercially successful independent films of 2000. The more specifically religious focus appealed to LDS members, of course, as well as outsiders with its touching, somewhat tormented tale of young people trying to do good in a difficult world. "Brigham City" is a darker, more ambitious film that should reach even larger audiences. It shows his growth as a director (with vastly more assured and artistic camera work and editing) and especially as an actor -- with one of the strongest performances of the year when it comes to showing a character's unspoken inner life. For some critics from the cultural left, as well as from within the Evangelical Christian community, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints remains controversial. There should be no dispute or controversy, however, concerning the valuable contributions to our general culture from Richard Dutcher, with his audacious, original, and undeniably intriguing Mormon movies. THREE AND A HALF STARS.
Onward cinematic soldier
The tiny, sleepy hamlet of Brigham is 138 years young when murder comes to town.
"Brigham City," the second "religious" film from gifted writer-director-actor Richard Dutcher, is more murder mystery than run-of-the-mill Bible-thumper. And that, my friends, is worth making joyous noise about.
Although Dutcher's films favor a Mormon perspective on religion and living life, the quality of the film itself is high enough to interest even mainstream audiences paying retail purely for escapism entertainment.
That's something Billy Graham's powerful religious influence has failed to achieve after decades of trying (mainly with stilted acting and one-dimensional stories).
Dutcher also wrote, directed and co-starred in "God's Army," which was equally impressive, last August. Frankly, I don't even care if Dutcher's films carry just the slightest hint of a vanity project. They are so far above the norm in "religious entertainment," he can be forgiven a yearning for center stage.
In "God's Army," he was Elder Dalton, a dedicated Mormon whose illness pushed him toward his latter days as a Latter Day Saint.
This time, Dutcher portrays Wes Clayton, a troubled widower who serves two vital functions in Brigham. He's one of 17 Mormon bishops and the only sheriff of peace-loving Kirtland County.
Stu (Wilford Brimley), the crotchety former sheriff who is retired but can't seem to leave the office, calls Wes the town's oldest young man. Wes is an isolationist at heart. Terry (Matthew Brown, who played an elder in "God's Army"), his deputy, can't even get Wes to listen to out-of-town news on the car radio.
After his daily visit to put roses on the grave of his wife and son, however, all of that changes. A blood-splattered shiny red convertible parked near an old shack on the edge of town confirms the bishop/sheriff's worst fears. He tries to downplay the murder at first. But when a local beauty queen is killed and stuffed under the town's picturesque gazebo, Wes begins to lay down the law.
Frankly, "Brigham City" held my attention all the way through as a crime thriller. It follows Hollywood's traditional formula of presenting several suspects, including a red herring or two. Though it's a low-budget affair, the performance level is adequate. It's quite good, in fact, when it comes to old vet Brimley and newcomer Carrie Morgan as Peg.
Dutcher isn't a great actor; he probably never will be. But he does bring a stoic reality to Wes and the film in general. More importantly, as writer and director, Dutcher takes his place as a budding cinematic light.
Not just for Mormons. Not just for religious entertainment. But as a filmmaker.
***** [5 out of 5 stars]
Morality Meter: 3 out of 4
Richard Dutcher, the producer/writer/director of God's Army, brings us a new dimension in his exploration and production of "Mormon cinema" with this gripping tale of murder in a small Latter-day Saint town.
Sheriff Wes Clayton (Richard Dutcher) is one of the 17 bishops in Brigham City, Utah, a quiet small town - and the sheriff wants to keep it that way -- "It doesn't happen. Not here. Here's all I care about." After finding a woman's dead body he hopes to turn the case over to the FBI, much to the disappointment of his excitement-seeking deputy, Terry Woodruff (Matthew A. Brown). When another murder occurs Sheriff Clayton realizes the quiet is over. The sheriff/bishop must protect and comfort his flock. The story line is too good to give away.
The scenes of Utah are beautiful. Dutcher slowly builds his characters, including the character of the town, with quiet observations. As the tension of the movie builds and the paranoia increases he masterfully releases some of it with scenes of everyday life and humor.
Dutcher's presence on screen is subtle yet powerful. Casting Wilford Brimley as Stu was inspired. Stu is immediately endearing and often steals the scene. Matthew A. Brown from God's Army (Elder Allen) is convincing in his role as Deputy Woodruff. I enjoyed Carrie Morgan's performance of Peg, Wes' secretary. It is wonderful to know that the competent cast was drawn form the people of Utah - kudos to casting director Jennifer Buster.
Sam Cardon's score was moving and poignant, and best of all -- well placed. Dutcher appears comfortable with silences and dialog unsupported by music. This has the effect of moving us into the minds of the characters. Instead of relying on music to tell us what to feel, it is used to enhance our present feelings.
I was impacted by the reality of the characters. I felt as if I were standing among them, going though this ordeal with them. The story was realistic. The emotions Dutcher generates in his audience are real. I kept thinking, "If this happened in a small Mormon town, this is what it would be like." Dutcher unapologetically brings the audience smack into the middle of Latter-day Saint life and culture. He brings you into the hearts of the people in a way I haven't felt at a movie in a long time.
The PG-13 rating is challenging Latter-day Saints who may have made commitments to themselves that they will not view PG-13 movies in order to maintain their standards. The language is clean. Sex and nudity are absent (although there is a scene with a sexy barmaid and a scene evidencing a man's struggle with pornography). The evidence of murder is displayed. We see blood and evidence of violence. We are shown limited views of dead bodies. A young woman is shown tied up and in distress. I don't want to give away the story, but the scenes are realistic -- they are brief and not gratuitous.
The question asked by the Sunday School teacher in the movie, "Do we have to lose innocence to obtain wisdom?" is worthy of thought. This is a movie about the horror of murder. I have seen movies and TV shows about murder. Either the murder is sanitized and minimized or it is glorified and elevated. Brigham City does neither of these. As the audience becomes a citizen of Brigham City they share in its pain. BC is rated PG-13 for the same reason that parents don't tell their children about all of their adult struggles. These are mature matters handled by good people. I didn't fell compromised by the movie. I came away feeling good about people struggling to do the right thing.
Some have criticized Dutcher for displaying the ordinances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as "casting pearls before swine." With the prevalence of "anti-Mormon" sentiment I can understand this. Latter-day Saints are not used to seeing an honest portrayal of their life on the screen. This makes some Saints uncomfortable. Dutcher displays these scenes as if they were the most normal events of every day life. This is refreshingly bold. The audience for this movie will extend beyond the LDS community and as it does it will contribute to the "normalization" of Latter-day saints.
Keep the little kids at home. See this movie. The last scene alone is worth it. Pay full price, hire a baby-sitter. FIVE STARS.