Saturday, August 25, 2007

REVIEW: September Dawn

If you're living near one of the 857 theaters currently showing "September Dawn," I reccomend that you do so. Not necessarily because it's entirely great, or because I believe there's some great intrinsic benefit to it, but because you just don't see one of "these" actually come around often. This is REAL independent filmmaking, folks, a self-made, uncompromised passion project with all the pros and cons that go with such an endeavor: A story that charges forth on the strength of will and conviction, a cast precariously balanced at the intersection of dutiful character actors, varied amateurs and marquee-name showstoppers; and most fascinating of all a tone that careens wildly to and fro between classy historical-dramatization and gut-reaction exploitation. By the time the third act rolls around, it resembles the result of Eli Roth directing second-unit for a Ken Burns piece.

This is an old-fashioned historical melodrama, the sort that Hollywood once pumped out by the truckload. True to that model, it's comprised of two main elements that never QUITE mesh into a proper whole. Part 1: A real historical event (here, the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre) boiled down to a simplified Good vs. Evil clash. Part 2: An invented substory (here, a wagon-train Romeo & Juliet hookup) designed to make the clash 'personal' to the audience. It's a difficult and usually ill-advised formula to use in the modern age, even for a period peice, but the execution here is about as good as can reasonably be asked for. It's melodrama, either you can "take it" or you can't.

"Mountain Meadows Massacre" is, along with the Donner Party, one of the grimmer footnotes in the history of the wagon train era. In 1857, a group of settlers en route to California stopped to rest in the Utah territories then occupied by the Mormons and their firebrand leader Brigham Young. Though welcomed to camp in the meadow under assurances of peace, the settlers were eventually decieved, betrayed and brutally slaughtered to the last man, woman and child (only infants were spared) by the Mormons' elite Dannite troops and a smattering of Paiute Indian allies - possibly under direct orders from Young himself as "blood atonement" for the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri decades earlier. The film, who's makers claim a painstaking amount of historical research, takes up the position that Young and the elder Apostles were indeed the masterminds of the butchery; a position that the modern Mormon church officially denies.

The film takes subtle but unmistakable pains to drive home it's welcome - though hardly radical - message that religious fanaticism is a source of great evil, with a special emphasis on the eerie coincidence that the final gory swipe of the slaughter took place on September 11th: In addition to the subtitle highlight of the date (which elicited an audible gasp from the audience I watched it with) and plentiful closeups of the baddies solemnly reffering to Mormon founder Joseph Smith as "The Prophet," a key flashback scene involving early Mormons destroying a critical newspaper's press is "narrated" by a quotation in which Smith's followers favorably compare him to Mohammed and the Koran. Allegory, much?

In fact, much of the raw power of the film (such as it is) comes from this somewhat uncomfortable source: We're USED to seeing "alien" foriegn (or made-up) cultures as evil-incarnate bad guys for movies like this... but it's downright jarring to see the model applied to a group of "all-American" looking frontier folk. For most U.S. audiences, seeing yet another dark-skinned, thick-accented heavy hiss "Allahu Akbar!!" through his teeth while hooking up the detonator on "24" barely elicits even a raised eyebrow. But this film, with it's fair-haired psychopath's solemnly chanting "all Mormons are avowed enemies of America" in Temple or howling "Do your duty to God!!!" while whipping a tomahawk at fleeing female settler, drives the point into infinitely more unsettling territory; driving home a condemnation of fanaticism and fundamentalism in ALL forms as opposed to individual faiths that alone makes the film a welcome inclusion in the long-overdue national discussion on the place of religion in politics and the modern world.

Some have sensed a dark motive at work in this allegory, and while I'll agree it's a go-for-the-jugular approach to contemporising the themes for the audience I'm not positive I see any concrete "bigotry" implicit here. And if it were, I suspect you'd find a rather even disagreement as to whether the film is attempting to smear Mormons with a comparison to Islam or to smear Islam with a comparison to Mormons. Let it be said, though, that casting Bad Guy extraordinaire Terrance Stamp (in full-on "Kneel Before Zod!!!!" mode) as a grave, ranting Brigham Young is just this side of pushing-it. Still, Stamp mainly appears as a framing device or transitional sequence base, while the main villian chores are left to Jon Voigt as the Bishop General who oversees the massacre even while his eldest son is secretly slipping off for chaste romantic rendevousz with a lovely "Gentile" settler girl. Three guesses on whether or not "that's" gonna end happy. Jon Gries ("Napolean Dynamite's" Uncle Rico) in a terrifically underplayed performance as massacre field-leader/scapegoat John D. Lees and Lolita Davidovitch as a lady gunslinger who's "sinful" unisex clothing enrage the Mormons round out the cast.

All this setup and character work (including a welcome detailing of the earlier intolerance and expulsion that helped make the Mormons so distrustful of other Americans) settles the story into a leisurely (and, it must be said, overlong) first two acts carefully laying out the machinations that led to the tragedy and playing-out the obligatory love story with such deliberate pacing that it's all the more wrenching when the actual massacre begins to unfold and the film takes-off (or descends, depending on your point of view) into unappologetic grab-the-audience-by-the-balls-and-twist-till-they-get-it exploitation territory. Whatever else it may be while getting there, the Massacre scenes themselves reveal "Dawn's" true desire to be nothing less than the Pioneer Era "Schindler's List."

The film is staking it's claim as THE dramatic rendering of this event, and the horrors play out as an endless montage of shot, beaten and slashed innocents with special attention to the targeting of women and children along with some of the Mormon raiders creepy decision to go into battle in garish "Indian" costumes. (One main character eventually looks like an escapee from Lord of The Flies, dual-wielding a knife/pistol combo and literally salivating with bloodlust.) It comes just up to "the line" of Mel Gibson-style sadism, (save that none of the Mormon baddies are set up to appear slightly effeminate or Jewish-looking beforehand, of course.)

"September Dawn" is a fascinating, flawed, occasionally grand and deeply troubling film that should absolutely be seen just for the sake of expanding the palette. "The Hollywood System" doesn't put out movies like this, and the film serves double-duty at demonstrating both why that's a shame and also why it's not entirely unwise or unexpected. In the end, a flawed film that gets under your skin is usually more worthwhile than a "perfect" one that evaporates the moment it's over. Reccomended.


P.S. The "other" story of the film is the now-lingering question of how any focus onto this dark part of the rather secretive Mormon sect's history will effect, if at all, the presidential campaign of Republican and Mormon Mitt Romney. For the record, I think it would be a true shame if people opted not to vote for Romney because they saw this movie. I feel that people should come to dislike Mitt Romney the natural way: By having to listen to him for a few minutes ;)