Population 436

“Population 436” is about a U.S. census taker who visits the Midwestern town of Rockwell Falls to investigate an anomaly: For more than 100 years, the town’s population has always been exactly 436. What could be the reason for this strange– what’s that? You’ve already figured it out? Aw, crap.

You’re smarter than the movie, a weak mystery thriller written by Michael Kingston and directed by “X-Files” veteran Michelle Maxwell MacLaren. The movie is just POSITIVE you’re going to be in the dark for a long time, even though there are only two possible scenarios: Either no one ever dies or has offspring, or else there’s some ritual killin’ going to keep the head count steady. And since in the first couple minutes we see a baby being born simultaneous with a man dying, the first scenario is immediately ruled out. Murder it is!

The census taker, Steve Kady (Jeremy Sisto), has trouble finding the town at all. When he asks for directions at a dusty old gas station, he is ignored. (He has evidently never seen the dozens of horror films in which last-chance gas stations are harbingers of doom.) When he finally stumbles onto Rockwell Falls, he is greeted with guarded pleasantness and a Stepford-esque sense of hospitality. That this fails to alarm him means he has never seen the dozens of horror films about weird little towns whose simple, plain-dressed residents don’t welcome outsiders.

Steve gets to work examining old town records and archives, and befriends local girl Courtney (Charlotte Sullivan), who wants to get out of the town but can’t seem to find a way. In fact, no one ever seems to leave. In fact, everyone’s really obsessed with numbers and numerology. In fact, there’s a mysterious public festival coming up for which a king or queen must be chosen via random drawing. In fact, there’s a curious “fever” that overtakes certain citizens now and then, too.

And I’m reminded of another truism about movies: No movie character is ever shown engaging in target practice unless he or she will later have to fire a gun for real.

The specifics of the town’s cultishness confuse me. On the one hand, they don’t want strangers coming to visit. But on the other hand, when a stranger DOES enter, they force him to stay forever — even though that throws off the count and requires adjustments to be made. Wouldn’t it be easier to just make outsiders leave as soon as possible, to avoid the population fluctuation?

Lost in the dragged-out, super-obvious, suspense-free story (remember Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”?) is an interesting analogy about how people imprison themselves with religion and superstition. I would like to see that theme expanded in a more intriguing setting than this one. Here, the census taker counts the citizens while the viewer counts the minutes.

C- (1 hr., 32 min.; R, some strong sexuality, partial nudity, one F-word and brief violence.)