The fact that Brigham City, new this week from Spartan Home Entertainment, is set deep in the heart of Mormon country and was created by a Mormon filmmaker might turn off some viewers. That would be a big mistake, because "Brigham City" rates with the greatest modern indie noirs (e.g., the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple," John Dahl's "Red Rock West") shot during the last two decades. It's our
Video pick of the week
Richard Dutcher, writer-director of "Brigham City" (priced for rental VHS, also available on DVD), also takes the lead role of Wes Clayton, chief temporal (as sheriff) and spiritual (as church bishop) protector of idyllic, sheltered Brigham, Utah. But Wes is no shining hero; he's a damaged soul with a tragic history (wife and son killed in a mysterious road mishap that left Wes with a permanent limp and haunted heart) and a major blind spot -- a reluctance to acknowledge the "outside" (i.e., non-Mormon) world. As he tersely tells young deputy Terry (Matthew A. Brown) about violent crime, "It doesn't happen. Not here. Here's all I care about." No sooner are those words out of Wes' tight-lipped mouth than the lawmen stumble upon the body of a slain woman in a deserted barn.
The victim is identified as an out-of-state traveler, so Wes is only too happy to turn over the investigation to Salt Lake City FBI agents led by Scully-like Meredith Cole (Tayva Patch). But when pretty, innocent "Miss Brigham 2001" (Jacque Gray) becomes the unknown killer's next bludgeoned victim, Wes is forced to admit that it's indeed an "inside" problem and quite possibly even an inside job.
Like such vintage moral noirs as Nicholas Ray's 1952 "On Dangerous Ground," "Brigham City" is a model of artistic economy wherein every detail serves the story, with nary a wasted word or glance to be found in its swiftly paced 115 minutes. Auteur Dutcher explores his main themes -- outsiders vs. insiders, self-destructive denial vs. self-protective guile -- while delivering a taut, tense, at times emotionally devastating thriller that will keep you guessing to the end. Anything but a proselytizing Christian film, "Brigham City" is a must for anyone in the mood for a terrific, textured suspenser that will echo long after the end credits roll.
Collectors' corner: Mondo Monroe
Marilyn Monroe fans will find reason to rejoice next month when 20th Century Fox presents "The Diamond Collection: Volume II," spotlighting five Monroe movies making their DVD debuts ($19.98 each): The late actress stretches in a pair of early 1950s psychological thrillers -- as an unstable baby sitter in Roy Ward Baker's underrated Don't Bother to Knock , co-starring Richard Widmark; and as a scheming wife in Henry Hathaway's beautifully shot Niagara , with Joseph Cotten as her intended victim.
She goes the romantic comedy route opposite Yves Montand in Let's Make Love and Cary Grant in Howard Hawks' Monkey Business . Otto Preminger's flavorful 1954 Western River of No Return , wherein the actress risks raging rapids with rugged Robert Mitchum, completes the MM quintet.
The titles will also be available on VHS ($9.98 each).
For committed "Friends" freaks, next week Warner Home Video premieres Friends: The Complete First Season, featuring 24 uncut episodes, plus previously unseen extra footage, audio commentary, cast profiles and more ($39.95 VHS/$59.95 DVD).
In mid-May, 20th Century Fox counter-programs with The X-Files: The Complete Fifth Season, containing 20 episodes in widescreen format, along with loads of eerie extras ($149.98 per 6-disc DVD set).
Where there's a Will
Alien-amok lovers impatient for "Men in Black II"'s summer multiplex arrival should check out Columbia/TriStar's Men in Black: Deluxe Edition ($24.95). The double-disc DVD not only contains special agents Tommy Lee Jones and Mr. Smith's original adventures but offers, among other extras, a teaser trailer for "MIB II." The title is also available on VHS ($9.95).
Mr. Smith, meanwhile, is also on view in Michael Mann's lavish boxing biopic Ali, out next week through Columbia/Tri-Star (priced for rental VHS, $24.95 DVD). The film offers a sweeping visual canvas and a standout performance by Mr. Smith as the defiant young Muhammad Ali.
Dear Phantom: Is the movie Fatal Attraction going to be available on DVD?
-- M.W., via e-mail
As a matter of fact, the deluxe DVD came out last week and is available ($24.99) via Movies Unlimited (800/4-MOVIES, www.moviesunlimited.com), among other sources.
"Brigham City" tells us, among other things, that we all make mistakes. What matters is how we deal with them.
Taking this lesson to heart, I want to use this week's video and DVD release of "Brigham City" as an occasion to say that I erred in my original assessment of the film -- or, rather, in the way I presented that assessment.
I said it was a great spiritual drama surrounded by a bad murder mystery. Having watched the film a second time, I still feel that way. However, the second viewing drove home a point I had not considered, which is that the quality of the murder mystery is almost irrelevant. It is not the point of the movie.
Let me compare it to another movie I admire very much, the Italian film "Life Is Beautiful." In it, a Jewish man interred with his little boy in a Nazi concentration camp goes to extreme lengths to keep the lad from knowing what's really going on. He pretends it's an elaborate game, thus shielding his son from the horror.
When "Life Is Beautiful" was released in the United States in 1998, some critics attacked it for making light of the Holocaust. It was unconscionable, they said, to use a concentration camp as a setting for light-heartedness. How could the film take place during World War II and not graphically depict what went on?
These critics missed the point. You can't criticize a movie for not accomplishing what it wasn't trying to do in the first place, and "Life Is Beautiful" wasn't trying to be a faithful depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. It was a fable about a man's love for his family. It wanted to show that love and humor can triumph even under the most dire circumstances; it used a concentration camp as the backdrop because that was the most dire circumstance imaginable. It is no more "about" the Holocaust than a joke beginning "A man walks into a bar" is necessarily "about" bars. It is merely the setting.
"Brigham City" uses a murder mystery as the setting for a story about faith, redemption and loss of innocence. It follows a man in a small Utah town who is the sheriff and also a local LDS bishop, who must contend with a serial killer. There are surprises I don't want to spoil, but suffice it to say the sheriff (played by writer/director Richard Dutcher) feels he could have done a better job of protecting the people in his town and in his ward.
The thriller angle of the film, I maintain, is not very well done. As a thriller alone, it would never stand up against other films of that genre that are more suspenseful, more surprising and more logical.
But my point is, that's not the point. "Brigham City," more than any movie I have ever seen, offers penetrating insight into the nature of repentance and redemption. It speaks directly to people of faith and offers hope in a very personal, spiritual, Christian way. Its framing story could have been better told, but its core message is beautiful and sublime.
Now that it's readily available, I recommend this film to all people with even the slightest belief in God. The final scene alone, set in an LDS sacrament meeting, is more gently instructive than a thousand sermons. Hopefully, one forgives the movie's lesser mistakes in exchange for its masterful successes.
If you go to a video store this weekend and see "Brigham City" on the shelf, notice the cover art.
You might see Richard Dutcher holding a gun "Dirty Harry"-style, with co-stars Wilford Brimley and Matthew A. Brown behind him, and a faint LDS Church steeple in the upper left-hand corner, along with the theatrical poster tagline: "Nothing attracts a serpent like paradise."
Or, you might see the dripping-blood title "Brigham City" above an eyeball peering out of a leather mask, and outstretched bloody fingers, along with this tagline: "Your neighbor is a serial killer. Welcome to your worst nightmare."
More correctly, "Welcome to Richard Dutcher's worst nightmare."
Video retailers have their choice of the two covers, but the "Dirty Harry" art came only after Dutcher asked for an alternative.
"Brigham City" was Dutcher's second LDS film, after writing, directing and co-starring in the surprise hit "God's Army," about Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles.
"Brigham City" -- with Dutcher in the lead role of a sheriff and LDS bishop in a small Utah town -- is a conventional murder mystery with unconventional religious trappings.
While the film's thriller components are pure Hollywood, the LDS elements, especially the ending, as the sheriff comes to terms with having to shoot someone, is about as far from "Dirty Harry" as you can get. It's a bold look at the empowerment of faith and a validation of religious beliefs, something you'll never see in a Hollywood movie.
So, after selling the film's North American video rights to Spartan Home Entertainment, imagine Dutcher's chagrin when he saw the box art, which looks like a cross between "Jeepers Creepers" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
"I laughed when I saw it, and I didn't think they were serious," Dutcher said by telephone from his Provo office. "But I did give them the right to market it as they see fit. When I signed the deal with an L.A. distribution company, I lost control over how it's marketed. Being so independent as I have been, it was kind of hard, but at same time I trusted that they would know what they were doing."
Dutcher was able to talk Spartan into the second cover, which better represents the film -- but he worries that the horror cover "may sell more copies, but the people that would enjoy this film might not rent that cover as it stands. My hope is they're right, that this is the best way to get it into as many stores as possible.
"Unfortunately, the alternate cover will probably only be seen in LDS bookstores and the Jell-O belt."
He also added, "I don't know -- maybe it'll become a little cult thing -- 'Which cover do you have?' "
Actually, Dutcher didn't go to Spartan -- Spartan came to him. "That was interesting. They pursued us on this deal. They called us and wanted to make the deal. That's how the discussions were opened. I thought that was a real compliment to the film -- a company that had absolutely no Mormons working there."
(Spartan primarily releases straight-to-video exploitation thrillers starring such "actors" as Shannon Tweed and Hulk Hogan. But it does have in its catalog another film that deals with Mormons -- the fact-based 1992 TV movie "Deliver Them From Evil: The Taking of Alta View," starring Harry Hamlin and Teri Garr in the story of Richard Worthington taking hostages at Alta View Hospital in Sandy. Spartan's video title is "Take Down," not to be confused with the 1978 comedy shot in Provo by Mormon filmmaker Kieth Merrill.)
An interesting byproduct of "God's Army" and "Brigham City" is the proliferation of Mormon movies that have followed: "The Other Side of Heaven," "Out of Step" and "Singles Ward" already this year, with several more on the way. And on May 20, Dutcher starts shooting his ambitious Joseph Smith biopic, to be filmed in western New York and Canada.
Of his becoming the godfather of LDS cinema, Dutcher says, "I have mixed feelings. Naturally, I have a particular vision in hopes for what Mormon filmmmaking will be, and some of these films give me anxiety. But of the other films, this little 'Out of Step' movie that hardly received any kind of release at all, I was very pleased with that. I was also very pleased with the production values of 'The Other Side of Heaven.' I think that's been a good film for the Mormon genre, the Mormon niche, just because kind of looks wonderful."
But he does have a concern about the market being big enough to accommodate so many all at once.
"It is kind of thrilling," Dutcher said. "When 'Out of Step' came out, I picked up the paper that day and saw that three LDS movies were playing in theaters the same weekend. But I don't understand why they all were all out in the same market at the same time; three films fighting for the same audience. I'd prefer to see one come out after another. That's one thing I think the Mormon film community will have to learn, to be cooperative and not competitive."
This week, our readers weigh in on LDS cinema and its critics:
You quote Richard Dutcher [in your April 21 column] as saying "I don't want Mormon cinema to be Utah cinema." My question to him is: Then why do you make Mormon cinema that is Utah cinema?
"Brigham City" is definitely targeted to a Mormon audience. It could have been a good movie, but its emphasis on Mormon religious observances diminishes in the eyes of many the ordinances Mormons hold dear (passing the sacrament, blessings, etc.). Also, the observances are either not understood or misunderstood by those who are not familiar with the Latter-day Saint view of the world. Indeed, the movie was classic "Utah" cinema. Had it been filmed as "Anytown U.S.A." with a generic religious population centered around a generic church organization without being so specifically "Utah" and "Mormon," it would likely have had a great appeal to the entire moviegoing population of the country.
I personally dislike the idea of parading sacred Latter-day Saint ordinances across the movie screens in general-attendance movie theaters. These things are much more delicately treated in our church films. Perhaps I am a majority of one, but I have in fact heard many others express the same sentiment.
-- Paul B. Winn
[Means' response] "God's Army" is Mormon cinema, but it is not Utah cinema -- it was shot in Los Angeles, and its main character was from Kansas -- and its popularity outside of Utah (albeit largely, though not entirely, with LDS audiences) bears witness to that.
Making "Brigham City" more generic may have broadened its appeal, but it would have destroyed the story. The main character, Wes Clayton (played by Dutcher), is both the sheriff and his ward's bishop -- and it is the conflict between those roles that creates the movie's tension. Making Wes a generic preacher would not have worked, because in most other churches, a minister doesn't hold down another job.
I thought the LDS rites Dutcher showed illuminated Clayton's story, making it as specific to his character as a Catholic baptism did with Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" or the opening synagogue service did to the single Jewish woman in "Kissing Jessica Stein."
It was unfair to quote [in your April 21 column] the single excerpt from The New York Times as representative of movie reviews of "The Other Side of Heaven." The Times' politically correct reaction is predictable and has nothing to do with the quality of the movie.
-- Robb Cundick
[Means' response] Alas, it was representative. The Rotten Tomatoes Web site (www.rottentomatoes.com), a clearinghouse of movie reviews, listed a lowly 24 percent of critics -- seven out of 29 -- giving "The Other Side of Heaven" a favorable rating (and I was one of the seven). Most complained about the way the Tongans were relegated to second-class status in the film -- but others also talked about its corniness and flat characters.
A few producers see potential in films that have Christian themes but don't preach
Frustrated with Hollywood, which has shied away from making films with spiritual themes or religious characters, a handful of independent producers are striking out on their own to make Christian-themed films that seek to entertain more than preach...
Excel's first release, "God's Army" (2000), a drama about Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, grossed a profitable $2.6 million, but its director Richard Dutcher's darker follow-up, "Brigham City" (2001), made only $800,000...
Excel is developing director Dutcher's next project, "The Prophet," based on the life of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith Jr...
Davis, for one, thinks it's high time for a return to making films like "Places in the Heart," "Chariots of Fire" and "Lilies of the Field," "movies that all have a sort of religious element to it without ever making me feel like, 'Oh wow, they want to make me one of them.'"
"How ironic it is that we live in a culture or a society where it's perfectly acceptable to make a movie that helps you get inside the head of a cannibal, and it's kind of hip and politically correct to make that movie, but to make a movie where you try to get inside of the head of someone who believes in God is taboo."
Spartan Home Entertainment // PG-13 // $29.99 // April 23, 2002
Religious themed movies are proving to be big business. Left Behind, Carman The Champion, and the two Omega Code films are just a handful that have hit theaters in recent years. These 'godsploitation' movies have been criticized for being little more than thinly veiled propaganda, driving the agendas of a powerful few and exploiting the piety of audiences. Richard Dutcher, who also wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the successful 2000 indie film God's Army, broke from the traditional hackneyed formula of a lead character finding religion and living happily ever after for his follow-up, Brigham City.
Like Zion Films' God's Army, Brigham City deals with the Mormon faith. Dutcher stars as Wes Clayton, a widower who is both the sheriff and a bishop in a small, predominantly Mormon town in Utah. When a body turns up in the outskirts of town, the death is dismissed as a random highway murder. Clayton assumes that it's not the business of Brigham, which has never been subjected to that sort of violence. A pair of FBI agents steps in, much to the chagrin of fiercely territorial deputy Terry (Matthew A. Brown). As the body count continues to rise and the presence of a serial killer becomes increasingly evident, Clayton can no longer try to sweep the situation under the rug. He turns to a retired sheriff (Wilford Brimley) for help, and Clayton even turns to his influence as a bishop to go to extreme lengths to unmask the murderer.
I do not consider myself to be a religious person at all, and I have very little familiarity with the Mormon Church. Though the buzz around Brigham City was exceedingly positive, I was still expecting its religious elements to be handled in as overbearing and heavy-handed a cornball way as its more widely-promoted predecessors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. That's not to say that religion is wholly absent -- there are a number of scenes in which it is touched upon, as well as several shots of characters praying and lengthy segments that take place in a church. There's no dialogue in the vein of "It's happening...(dramatic pause)...just like in the Bible!" or "...but Peter, don't you remember the lessons taught to us in the Book of Whatever, verse 3?"
Though there aren't any monstrous explosions or generous use of CGI effects, the high quality of the production values are such that Brigham City doesn't look like a million dollar production. The acting is surprisingly good as well, though lines from a couple of very minor characters and the dark monologue from the revealed killer are unconvincing. Carrie Morgan is a stand-out as Clayton's spunky secretary, and it's nice to see that Wilford Brimley is still finding work. The run time is right at two hours, and Brigham City would've benefited from some tightening. Though perhaps Dutcher felt obligated to include a number of extended scenes in the church for his financial backers, these moments often feel unnecessarily long and drag the movie down considerably. The bare structure of the plot -- murders, investigations, and numerous red herrings culminating in a surprise revelation -- is not strikingly original, but the combination of the xenophobia of a small, seemingly innocent town and skillful execution make even this well-tread premise seem more fresh than it would've in less capable hands.
Brigham City isn't just a good religious suspense flick; it's a good suspense flick, period, and worth a rental.
This DVD is somewhat of an unusual situation, though. The review copy I was sent by Spartan Home Entertainment is incomplete, lacking the majority of the features of the version that will be released in late April. I don't believe this disc was intended to be reviewed in this capacity at such an early stage, but for whatever reason, I'll go ahead and touch on what's present.
Video: This DVD of Brigham City is letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. I am unsure if the final release will be in anamorphic widescreen, but this particular disc is not enhanced for 16x9 televisions. I somewhat unimaginatively find myself comparing non-anamorphic DVDs to my preferred point of reference, USA World Premiere Movies, and Brigham City does look incrementally better than what I'd expect to see on cable. Perhaps it would look even nicer if the 115 minute movie weren't crammed onto 3.88 gigs on this single sided, single layer disc. Maybe the bit budget for the full DVD will be larger. Edge haloing was noticeable at some portions when I was playing the disc in my DVD-ROM, preparing image captures for this review, though they didn't seem nearly as intrusive on my television set. I didn't spot any grain or speckling. Areas of fine detail, such as cloth and roof shingles, have a tendency to shimmer somewhat. I would imagine it's also a safe assumption that the final release will not have subtitles reminding viewers every fifteen minutes that this disc is for screening purposes only.
Audio: The final version is said to include Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, though this screener copy only includes an strictly average English Dolby stereo surround track. I didn't notice much rumbling from the subwoofer at all, even during a live performance of a country band. Perhaps a discrete LFE channel would improve things somewhat in that respect. The rears get the usual 2.0 surround treatment, which is to say not much at all beyond ambiance and music. There are a couple of nice moments when the surrounds burst to life, such as the crackling of police radios at a crime scene. The only real flaw I noticed was distortion as a woman was screaming during a search of her home.
Supplements: The screener copy I was sent did not include any supplemental material or (yikes!) even any chapter stops. The enclosed booklet lists director commentary, behind-the-scenes interviews, filmographies, and a trailer. I don't think it would be fair for me to make an assessment of the disc's extras without having the opportunity to view them myself, and the zero score in this review reflect what is on the disc I was sent.
Conclusion: I'm not particularly fond of the idea of trying to decide whether or not to recommend a DVD based on an incomplete copy, though I did enjoy the movie. I guess the sensible thing to do, given the material at hand, would be to just say 'rent it'.
While many movies move me deeply, rarely do they bring me to tears.
The ending of Richard Dutcher's "Brigham City" (DVD) (VHF) did that for me, as my wife and I watched it for our wedding anniversary last night.
One usually does not expect genuine spirituality to rise in a murder mystery movie.
Dutcher does an amazing job of weaving a very gripping mystery plot while also portraying real life in a small Mormon community. He doesn't unjustly glamorize that life but epitomizes its genuine life-changing moments with an honesty and nobility that few movies accomplish.
For some reason I thought the movie was based on a true story, and didn't realize otherwise until preparing this review. Nothing in the movie caused me to think it was a fabrication.
I was also interested to learn that much of the movie was filmed in Mapleton, where my Dad was born and raised, and where I too have lived a couple of times. My sister and her family currently live there; and my uncle, Dean Allan, currently serves as the mayor there.
The one criticism I would make of the movie's plot is a scene in which the sheriff calls upon the men in the community to go door to door and search each home -- without a search warrant. While the extreme concern that spurred the sheriff to do this seems justified in the context given, such actions present a dangerous precedent for violating fundamental rights to privacy. Even dire circumstances such as presented in this movie, do not provide a waiver of those rights. Such excuses are what fueled Nazi Germany. If the sheriff was indeed justified in this tactic, he should have obtained a legal warrant to do so.
That Dutcher would incorporate this tactic into his movie and give it credibility is a scary sample depiction of how ready the Mormon community is to give up their fundamental rights in the name of expediency.
This, unfortunately, is a fair depiction of a general shallowness when it comes to an understanding of freedom's parameters among the mainstream LDS community. It is one of the attributes that makes them likely candidates to stand in line when the mark of the beast is enforced, with pain of death being the consequence of refusal to comply -- because of some 'socially justifying' expediency like Sept. 11, 2001.
While Dutcher does a good job of portraying mainstream Mormonism with honesty, he seems to be somewhat naive when it comes to knowing what it is to be a "remnant" spoken of in the scriptures, who overcome all things and triumphantly establish Zion. That remnant will revere and understand principles of freedom.
Nevertheless, the redemptive ending of "Brigham City" is a fantastic spiritual accomplishment for which Dutcher deserves the highest of accolades.
It's definitely a movie I would recommend (with the above clarification) to all my friends, especially those of the LDS faith. I'm not sure non-LDS would appreciate some of the innuendoes nearly as much, though they certainly would still find the movie to be well worth their time.
I was pleased to see that Box Office Magazine gave it four stars of four. A truly great accomplishment for a film produced for under $1 million.
Back in 2000, Richard Dutcher wrote, directed, and co-starred in a movie called God's Army, an independent film about the life of Mormon missionaries. I didn't review it here, as it's outside the normal scope of my review arena, but it was an incredible movie: It presented a very honest look at how missionaries think and feel, and the struggles and triumphs of the term they spend proselyting.
By also being the first theatrical movie designed to tell stories about Mormons for Mormons -- not as a missionary tool or apologetic work, but simply a story by and for a faith-based subculture -- it also single-handedly created a new cinematic subculture: Mormon movies. People are discovering that regional theatrical distibution is a viable business decision (with Mormons being a sizeable population group in the Intermountain West), and Dutcher exposed a niche market.
As with any such, everyone wants to be "first to be second," and in the last two years some other specifically Mormon movies have come out. The Other Side of Heaven just got limited national release last month, the dramatized true story of a young missionary in the '50's spending three years on a Tongan island. (Just to show you that religious bias doesn't overwhelm my judgement, I thought that while The Other Side of Heaven had many moving faith-specific scenes, it was far too episodic, without any real narrative thrust. And Anne Hathaway as Elder Groberg's "girl back home" was completely wasted.) There's even a comedy currently in local theaters, called Singles Ward, about the all-singles congregations you find in larger urban areas and around universities.
Having basically jump-started the genre, then, Dutcher had to follow it up. While God's Army and The Other Side of Heaven were both generally sunny stories (and dealt with missionary experiences, which are as close to universal experiences as you're going to find among Mormons), Brigham City is a much darker story, a Mormon murder mystery. And it may well be one of the best movies made in the last five years.
In the fictional small Utah town of Brigham (not to be confused with the real Brigham City), Wes Clayton (Dutcher) is a man with many hats. He's the Kirtland County sheriff and fully half of the police force, along with his only deputy, Terry (Matthew A. Brown, star of God's Army). He's also the bishop of one of Brigham's seventeen LDS congregations, in charge of the spiritual wellbeing of a couple hundred members. He's a widower, having lost his wife and child in a car crash that put him in a coma for eight days and left him limping on a leg brace. In many ways, though only 35 (one character calls him "the youngest old man I've ever known"), Wes has transplanted his paternal instincts onto the people for whom he is doubly responsible. He worries about the change that growth is bringing to a peaceful town where no one locks their doors.
And all his worries come to the forefront when Wes and Terry find a bloodspattered convertible by an abandoned homstead -- and the brutally-murdered woman inside.
With the out-of-state plates on the car, Wes is only too happy to hand the whole matter over to FBI Agents Cole and Garcia (Tavya Patch and Jeff Johnson), disclaiming the whole thing as an "outside matter" that only ended up in his county thanks to a randomly-chosen highway off-ramp. He tries to keep a lid on the matter and asks the FBI to conduct their investigation discreetly as the town goes about its annual birthday celebrations.
And it all comes crashing down when the body of Miss Brigham (Jacque Gray) is discovered under the park gazebo on Sunday morning, forcing him to switch hats from bishop to sheriff in the middle of meetings. "Congratulations, Sheriff," says Agent Cole. "You've got a serial killer in town."
Because this is a murder mystery, suspects are trotted out -- but because there are no real clues, the suspects are just about everybody. We're given some faces to attach suspicions to, like Ed (John Enos), the tow-truck driver who's about to get baptized, or Steve (Richard Clifford, an old friend from my freshman year who went on to marry my friend Don's sister), the slightly shifty photographer. But there's an entire town here. And if the killer is one of them, what will that do to the trust of a multi-generational community?
And this really wasn't meant to be a classic whodunit, with a discrete pool of clearly delineated suspects and conflicting evidence pointing at each. It's a study of a community faced with a life-changing event. Themes of the paradox of innocence and wisdom abound, thanks largely to the lesson being taught in a Sunday School class that Agent Cole sits in to familiarize herself with the local culture. I dreaded the inevitable "Adam and Eve" allusion, but even when it came it was quiet and appropriate, coming from the mouth of old Stu (Wilford Brimley), the retired former sheriff who's too ornery to lie down and retire: "Nothing attracts a serpent like Paradise."
One scene that has stuck in the craw of many viewers has Wes gathering the men of the town and sending them door-to-door, two by two, to physically search every house for a missing girl. In a town where the separation of church and state is more a thought experiment than a reality, many are uncomfortable with and angry at both the violation of civil liberties and the use of "missionary experience" in the hands of law enforcement. But this scene makes sense in the context of the paternal and pastoral responsibility Wes feels for his congregation and community -- the goal being not evidence or even apprehension, but simply the safe rescue of the missing girl.
Along the way, religion plays a role, but not in an overt or preachy manner, any more than Witness was a proselyting tool for the Amish. This is largely a community of trust and faith, held together by common bonds of belief and true communitarianism; the basis of their faith is at times explored through the designated outsider-figure of Agent Cole, but in large part the religiosity of the theme is confined to non-denominational questions of innocence, redemption, and honestly trying to apply the precepts of one's faith in a situation beyond one's imagination.
Is this a perfect movie? No. Neither Dutcher nor Brown is quite as convincing in their roles as they were in God's Army, probably owing to the fact that those roles are further out of their own experience. These's some small indication of tension between Wes' twin roles, but I think that a stronger juxtaposition between the two couldn't have hurt. And in a town where non-Mormons are the minority, I can only imagine that community retrenchment and solidarity would have had much more the effect of splitting the town down lines of faith than what's apparent here.
But these are really quibbles. Because this is a movie of refreshing honesty -- of people of good conscience trying imperfectly to solve an unimaginable crime, and to keep it from hurting further. Though the pacing is relaxed and the violence is shown mutedly, there's no shying away from the gutwrenching effects of it, or the trauma inflicted on those who have to deal with it. and Dutcher the filmmaker isn't afraid to show that, even in his own devoted religion, there are sometimes no easy answers; nor is he afraid to show Dutcher the actor portraying a flawed and struggling man who feels his inadequacy in the face of his own commitment and responsibilities.
What pushed this one completely onto my "Wholeheartedly Recommended" list is the final scene, one that speaks of redemption and forgiveness and community without a word being spoken. It is a uniquely Mormon scene, with the background necessary for comprehension given earlier in the movie, but I doubt that the true emotional power of it can be completely experienced by anyone outside of the faith. And that's not a bad thing; it's a good thing. Dutcher has deliberately created a beautiful and unsettling movie designed to be understood most fully by a certain people, his people, not because of any impulse to be exclusive and exclusionary, but because trying to tell the story in terms which are equally understood by all audiences would mean that its power would be diminished for those audiences which could experience it best. I'll freely admit that I cried like a baby during those last few minutes; I would not have had Dutcher sacrifice that powerful storytelling, not for anything.
Dutcher's next project is that dream of all Mormon filmmakers, a biographical film about Joseph Smith. It's an overwhelming undertaking, but if anyone can craft an honest vision of this founding figure of LDS faith without falling into hagiography or apologetics, if anyone can show the conflicts of the human spirit through the unique lens of Mormon faith, it's Richard Dutcher.
Some Notable Totables: