A Blue Guitar Films presentation. Produced by Jeffrey Clifford, Jonathan Cohen.

A Blue Guitar Films presentation. Produced by Jeffrey Clifford, Jonathan Cohen.

Directed, written by Estep Nagy. Camera (color), Garrett Fisher; editor, David Leonard; music, Will Oldham; production design, Michael Krantz; casting, Carder Stout. Reviewed at the Lark, Larkspur, Calif., Oct. 1, 1996. (In Mill Valley Film Festival.) Running time: 83 MIN.

With: Brooke Smith (Rosemary), John Glover (Clio’s father), Missy Yager (Clio), Will Arnett (Ezra Caton), Chris Noth, George Dickerson, Joseph Coleman, Fritz Michel.

A rural potboiler so shrouded in ambiguity that it seems to think it’s “Persona,” “the broken giant” fixates on mannered understatement right down to that lower-case title. So much portent should lead some-where, but the final fizz-out makes Estep Nagy’s debut feature seem like one long, pretentious red herring. Commercially, pic likewise looks to go nowhere.

Ezra Caton (Will Arnett) is the young minister in a tiny Maine village. Townsfolk view him suspiciously 1due to his weird sermons, checkered family past (a fellow-preacher granddad died an odd death, later murkily explained), and his affair with loyal, if exasperated, waitress Rosemary (Brooke Smith). Her father , the mayor and general-store owner (George Dickerson), doesn’t much like Ezra either.

No wonder: In Arnett’s monotonous performance, Ezra comes off as less “deep” than simply sullen and standoffish. Tongues wag further — or at least two do, both belonging to loutish diner patrons — when Ezra offers church “sanctuary” to the young woman who arrives breathless on his doorstep one day. Clio (Missy Yager) evidently ran all 10 miles from the next town, in some distress she’s not eager to explain. Ezra asks no questions; she’s welcome to stay as long as she likes. Rosemary and her dad are less approving.

Soon Clio’s own father (John Glover) turns up, politely but firmly asking for his daughter’s return. Once Clio and Ezra — perhaps drawn together by a mutual inability to change facial expression — consummate their relationship, they decide to leave town. First, however, she wants to stop at Dad’s place “to get some things.” Upstairs in Pa’s bedroom, the three-some have an all-night talk (though nothing of note is said between time-passage dissolves). Clio is asked to “choose” between the two men.

Even when his hand is on fire or somebody else gets shot, Arnett remains frozen-faced; Yager is, likewise, a blank presence. These central performances are so internalized they come off as a joke sans punch line; the same could be said for the pretentiously “spare” dialogue (“You ever been left?” “Yes.” “Guess you have, guess you have.”). More animated perfs by Smith, Dickerson and Glover make their characters seem like normal people inexplicably trying to communicate with zombies. Despite rare hints of intentional humor, the film’s somber plod does not suggest such dynamics are intended.

Psychological motivation is hazy to nonexistent. Avoiding crude sex and violence is one thing; draining melodrama of any possible juice is another. There simply isn’t enough depth or atmospheric mystery in “the broken giant” to support its glum, insistent opacity. Closing shot is a shrug-inducing cipher.

Handsome lensing lends an autumnal mood, though the rhythms of rural life don’t exactly suffuse the screen. Will Oldham’s acoustic-guitar score features several songs, some with rather ponderous lyrics. In the final ditty, a couplet rhyming “lard” and “hard” sums up the viewing experience pretty well.

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