From the opening, sun-streaked image of wearied, bleary-eyed Sheriff Wes Clayton (Richard Dutcher) strapping on his ankle holster and suiting up with all the rote, laconic dispassion of Morgan Freeman in “Seven,” “Brigham City” aims for a considerably brassier ring than writer-producer-director-star Dutcher’s previous outing — the Latter Day Saints-missionaries-in-Hollywood fable “God’s Army.” And after two hours of this skillful, unusually despairing murder-mystery, it’s obvious that Dutcher has delivered on that ambition, crafting not only a more artful, philosophically daring work than his last pic, but also what may represent the happiest marriage yet of the disparate propagandistic and narrative influences inherent in the subgenre of “religious” cinema. Returns should be respectable for the low-budget, specialized pic, though extremely serious, often unsettling subject matter may turn away seekers of more frivolous, “Omega Code”-esque thrills.
One of the key factors that sets “Brigham City” (and “God’s Army”) apart from other recent religious-themed movies is that Dutcher, while a practicing Mormon, is not directly affiliated with any evangelical organization, nor does his financing derive from such sources. Rather, he is a typical independent filmmaker, driven by the atypical impetus to make films for a predominantly Mormon audience.
What makes “Brigham City” compelling to a non-Mormon audience is the finely detailed manner in which Dutcher elucidates the goings-on of small town Mormon life. Despite a more commercial premise than “God’s Army,” “Brigham City” is actually the more revealing about the subtleties of the insular Mormon culture.
The gloss in “Brigham City” is on a complex murder investigation. But Dutcher’s interest lies more in rupturing the innocent veneer of a tight-knit community, in the way of Atom Egoyan and “The Sweet Hereafter” before him.
When Wes and his eager-beaver partner Terry (Matthew A. Brown, of “God’s Army”) uncover the mutilated corpse of an out-of-town motorist, they are shocked that such a murder could happen in their open-windows, unlocked-doors town. But it also goes to the core of Wes’ own personal faith in a benevolent Almighty (in addition to being sheriff, he’s the town bishop).
When the killings continue, the sense is of a big-city immorality-and-corruption sore, peeling and festering its way into every corner of once peaceful Brigham.
Occasionally, Dutcher overindulges on familiar colloquial characters — kiss-my-grits secretary Peg (Carrie Morgan) and retired-but-still-hanging-around sheriff Stu (Wilford Brimley) — as well as on the obtuse depiction of city-slicker FBI agents and on too many red-herring diversions. But generally, he holds to his two major impulses — to weave a densely plotted, engrossing whodunit and to examine the rift between the loss of innocence and the gaining of wisdom.
He deepens pic’s mystery element with at least one genuinely surprising twist. And he effortlessly conveys the depth of his characters’ faith. All of this is accomplished without giving in to the sensationalistic overtures of the lurid subject matter or making the viewer feel preached to.
In fact, once you get over the periodic clunkiness of dialogue like, “His new companion’s kind of weird, but they got a couple of baptisms,” “Brigham City” may indeed be the best film of this ilk (i.e., one that rekindles a long-dormant forum for the discussion of serious faith-related issues in the American cinema) since Michael Tolkein’s “The Rapture” over a decade ago.
Dutcher is strong in the lead and populates the edges of pic with some finely acted bits (particularly from Morgan and Brimley). He builds the dilemma of Wes’ affronted faith into a supremely powerful climax that surely qualifies as one of the tensest communion services ever put on film.
And if, in the end, there is a hint of redemption, of the evil that infected the town of Brigham being put to rest, it is most tentative and cautionary, of the kind that would seem tough and uncompromising in any film, religious or otherwise.