Chasing a Good Day to Die (documentary)

A recent controversy in Utah surrounded James Mooney and his American Indian ceremonies that used peyote. Peyote is a hallucinogen that is illegal except when used in authentic Indian rituals. The problem here was that Mooney was allowing non-Indians to take part.

Was this against the law? That’s for the courts to decide. Would it make a fascinating documentary? It certainly could. Is “Chasing a Good Day to Die” a fascinating documentary? Heavens, no. It is slow and sleepy and uncompelling.

It was made by Paul Larsen, who tells his own story of finding a new lease on life through Mooney’s spiritual group. You don’t know he’s telling his own story, though, because he doesn’t put his name on the screen under his picture. He doesn’t do this with anyone else, either, so you never know who anyone is. You hear him referred to as “Paul,” and the closing credits indicate that someone named “Paul Larsen” wrote and directed the documentary, and so you put two and two together. Telling us participants’ names must be taught on the first day of Documentary Making 101; Larsen must have missed that day.

Larsen is his own worst enemy here, as his narration is dull and unenthusiastic. Getting people to care about a stranger’s problems is already an uphill battle, and surely his flat way of speaking does not help.

His next-best chance at gaining viewer interest would be to show us something genuinely fascinating or unfamiliar. The Indian ceremonies could qualify, since most viewers are unacquainted with them despite living in such geographical proximity to the practitioners. Again, here Larsen fails. A few sequences work — the “sweat lodge” experience, for example — but for the most part, little is done to bring us into the ceremonies or the reasons behind them. The rituals no doubt have helped people emotionally and spiritually, and some of those people (without names, of course) testify to that fact in the film. But Larsen’s lifeless style of filming and editing do not make it interesting.

C (; PG, very mild profanity and some drug use.)