Another lament by filmmaker Travis Wilkerson for his decaying hometown of Butte, Montana, "Who Killed Cock Robin?" reps an ambitious, but ponderous attempt to fashion a fictional narrative from the same physical and political landscape Wilkerson mined so richly for his 2002 docu, "An Injury to One."

Another lament by filmmaker Travis Wilkerson for his decaying hometown of Butte, Montana, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” reps an ambitious, but ponderous attempt to fashion a fictional narrative from the same physical and political landscape Wilkerson mined so richly for his 2002 docu, “An Injury to One.” Though Wilkerson still has much to say about corporate malfeasance and the decline of workers’ rights in America, pic’s fitful story, amateurish performances and sheer didacticism frequently stop “Cock Robin” dead. Ill-served by its slotting in Sundance’s dramatic competition, pic will prove a hard sell even to fests, with likeliest exposure coming from avant-garde film showcases.

Notwithstanding its failings, there remains ample evidence in “Who Killed Cock Robin?” that Wilkerson remains a uniquely talented filmmaker with a finely tuned social consciousness and a vivid feel for the melancholic expanses of the American West.

As detailed in “Injury,” Butte was once a Gold Rush boom town that turned out to be even richer in copper deposits, in turn attracting the attention of the Anaconda Mining Co., which set up shop there in the 1910s and stayed for almost 70 years. But when Anaconda finally pulled out, it left behind a polluted natural landscape and, Wilkerson suggests, an even more toxic air of hopelessness that soon seeped into the town and all its people.

Per “Cock Robin,” that’s particularly true of Butte’s present generation of aimless young men — men like Barrett Murphy (Barrett Miller); his childhood friend, Dylan (Dylan Wilkerson, the director’s brother); and his landlord Charlie (Charlie Parr), who worked for the mine in its final years and was lucky enough to buy some property.

Despite offering brief introductions to the characters, Wilkerson seems content to let the pic unfold as an impressionistic collage of sounds and images relating to an overall mood of failed activism.

Shooting on a mixture of film and video stocks — some of which lend the Butte landscape the grainy nostalgia of a fading dream, others of which flatten and dull the images with unforgiving clarity — Wilkerson juxtaposes the ghostly ramparts of former mine equipment against his restless young protagonists in their tank tops and khaki work pants, all set to the whine of old spirituals and work songs with titles like “Which Side Are You On?” and “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down.”

Some of those sequences achieve a rapturous folk lyricism that recalls songs by Guthrie and passages from Steinbeck, there’s a particularly troubling disconnect between Wilkerson’s nonprofessional talent and the blunt, obvious lines they’ve been given. As the characters sit around drinking beer and making proclamations about Joe Hill, social activism and George W. Bush, they recite their polemics with all the conviction of jaded high-schoolers performing the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Who Killed Cock Robin?” wants to be the story of Barrett Murphy and his feeling that the land he walks on has betrayed him. Yet Wilkerson never gets close enough to any character to create a rooting interest. And so Murphy’s third-act spiral into petty crime seems a perfunctory bit of business.

Indeed, throughout the pic there is the sense that Wilkerson is struggling with a dramatic form that is simply not a natural fit with his own artistic temperament.

Micro-budget pic is predictably scrawny on the technical side.

Who Killed Cock Robin?

Production

Produced by Susan Fink. Directed, written by Travis Wilkerson.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Wilkerson; editor, Wilkerson, Daniel Brantley; music, Charlie Parr, If Thousands, Alan Sparhawk; art director, Kim Horecka; sound, Paul Hackner; assistant director, Alice Lovejoy. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2005. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Barrett - Barrett Miller Charlie - Charlie Parr Dylan - Dylan Wilkerson Man in Bar - Sean Crowe Bartender - Sheryl Parsons
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