The kind of willfully obscure, excessively stylized exercise that’s bound to exasperate most viewers while enthralling a few, Asiel Norton’s debut feature “Redland” dresses a primitive tale of hillbilly sin and retribution in rarefied art-cinema affectations. Slavishly redolent of Malick and Sokurov in its quasi-mysticism, this pretentious, anti-dramatic drama is a very long shot for theatrical play. Still, it’s attracted some defenders on the fest circuit, and will doubtless continue to do so via cinematheque and DVD exposure.
A dirt-poor clan living in Northern California redwood country, possibly during the Great Depression, includes daughter Mary-Ann (Lucy Adden), discovered inducing miscarriage. She refuses to name her deflowerer, though flashbacks reveal her sensuous idyll with footloose, handsome young local Charlie (Toben Seymour).
After Charlie returns from the big city, Pa (Mark Aaron) quickly figures out the situation and leads the menfolk (including Sean Thomas as simpleminded eldest son Job) on a hunting expedition from which someone surely won’t come back alive. Meanwhile Mary-Ann, little bro Paul (Kathan Fors) and a woebegone Ma (Bernadette Murray) who thinks the whole family has “the devil in ’em,” stay behind to starve. Murder, incest and death by poison mushroom ensue.
The simple story isn’t far from yesteryear’s rural drive-in exploiters like “Poor White Trash.” Norton’s attempts to lend it profundity via heavy symbolism, the heroine’s naive-poetry narration and fussy visual strategies — toying with focus, exposure, filters, et al. — only hobble involvement with the thin narrative and stereotypically one-dimensional characters, despite some undeniably gorgeous shots of the spectacular forest environs.
The pic’s mannerisms are such that one can’t even properly appreciate or gauge the performances: One figure’s lengthy death throes, for instance, are shot in nostril-gazing closeups so extreme you feel sorry for the actor’s wasted labor. Similarly, the highly worked soundtrack frequently renders dialogue unintelligible.
Norton has clearly made a close study of several lyrical masters’ styles. But by straining for an entirely surface-bound “masterpiece” aura, “Redland” reveals that the one key, perhaps most important thing those artists possess — their soulful humanity — can’t be imitated.