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.
[Upon the DVD release of “Brigham City” in April 2002, I wrote the following article, which puts the film in a somewhat different light.]
“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.
B (; )