Things To Act
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Brigham City
So I finally got around to seeing Brigham City (which might have been the last thing on my List of Things I Missed On the Mission To Get Around To Seeing, come to think of it). Some observations [Spoilers, both minor and major will likely follow]:

*Nearer My God to Thee is not a sacrament hymn.
*Bishops are married; a bishop whose wife died would almost certainly be released, particularly in a town with plenty of other worthy and capable men.
*It’s hard to figure out how the Sunday School lesson depicted related to the D&C, which was the curriculum for the year the movie was set in.

Okay, that last one was fairly nitpicky (and the first could, I suppose, be a doctrinally questionable regional variation), but I think the fact that I noticed these things (and possibly others that slip my mind) is interesting. It seems there’s been a lot of hype about making “Mormon” movies, which can mean many different things. If the particular definition we’re working with means making movies (or other forms of art) about ordinary, faithful LDS people, I think it’s probably a worthy goal. However, every mistaken detail is going to make the work ring less true for the LDS audience. Having seen few quality LDS films makes it hard for me to tell how much of a problem this might be. God’s Army had some of the same difficulties—the DL interviewing his own investigator, a strange dearth of missionary interaction with members, etc. Some of these are caused by logistical problems—not being able to use Church facilities—and some seem to be caused by plot convenience (which is where it’s more questionable, IMO). In any event, it was only a minor problem in BC.

Other implausibilities can be explained as characterization, I suppose, as it’s a time-honored tradition that Characters In Suspense Movies Are Required to Act Like Idiots At Least Part of the Time. So the town’s entire public safety force, and the overseeing FBI agents, didn’t care about the Fourth Amendment. That’s probably sadly plausible, for a small town with no real crime problem. More troubling was the fact that the hero didn’t call for help before going to the Final Confrontation. Yes, it’s in character that he would want to handle it himself, but it was profoundly stupid, as if he had gotten himself killed (and it looked close to 50-50 odds at the end), the serial killer would have likely managed to escape, possibly killing again in the process.

The movie was very effective on several points, including building suspense. Interesting, in light of previous discussion on movie violence, was how little violence and gore Dutcher chose to show. We see a few blood-splattered objects, a few photographs of bloodied victims (not in close up), and a couple of violent moments. I think the most disturbing violent image of the film is probably the convenience store sequence. Seeing the bound and gagged girl, and seeing the gloved hand bring the gun to the deputy’s head before fading on the gunshot packed the most punch of any scene in the movie in terms of the immediacy and horror of the violence. Was this necessary to the movie? On the one hand, it communicated quick clearly the lengths to which the killer would go; on the other hand, it was quite disturbing.

The misfire, I thought, in the building of suspense was the number of false leads. Not being overly familiar with the murder mystery movie genre, I’m not sure how valid this complaint is, but I tend to think that even misdirection should be plausibly important instead of blatant trickery. I want to trust that the director is going to show me what is important, and not have to put up with intentional deceit. Thus, some of the scenes, particularly toward the end, seemed wrong—all of the shots of the one suspect loading his rifle and ominously approaching the sleeping woman were irrelevant to the outcome, and seemed dishonest. Yes, misdirection has its place, but it’s a fine line between allowing the audience to come to its own conclusions and deliberately deceiving them. If I want to trust the omniscient director/narrator who’s showing me the important scenes of the story, I don’t want him throwing in irrelevant scenes or trying to manipulate me into thinking something false.

A better way to build suspense might have featured more interactions in which the townspeople clearly distrust and suspect one another. There were a couple of scenes of this nature, but probably the longest—between the FBI woman with the flat tire and the construction manager—packed less of a punch because the FBI woman is an Outsider, and suspicious of everyone anyway.

The one really effective scene of foreshadowing, though, was the target practice scene. It was also about the only moment that I actually correctly suspected the identity of the serial killer before the end, with the ironic “can such a person be forgiven” conversation. It also communicated the relative skill with guns that added to the suspense at the end.

Speaking of which, the ending confrontation raises its own interesting questions, one of which, I think, has an easy answer. One has to wonder why the hero doesn’t stop the killer from assembling the gun, but given that we know he walks with a brace, it’s entirely plausible that he doesn’t want to get within physical sparring range, which means all he can do is point his gun and threaten. This leads to a different set of moral questions, but I think I’ll address those elsewhere.

The end confrontation was also powerful, I thought, in the way it humanized, to a degree, the killer. The conversation, with its mix of contrition, self-loathing, and taunting, leaves you unsure whether to consider the killer seriously sick and in need of help or seriously evil and in need of killing—and either way, it’s highly disturbing.

But disturbing isn't necessarily bad, given that A) life is often disturbing, and B) art that helps us understand, deal with, or think about life is often useful.

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