The ghost of Agatha Christie hangs over director Peter Spirer’s and screenwriter Michael Andrews’ “Dunsmore,” in which a Florida investigator looks into the apparent execution of the most hated man in town. While telling the story as a whodunit provides for a novelistic look at a backwards burg and its residents, device also imposes a surfeit of flashbacks that overwhelm the film. Offshore markets will be stoked by pic’s tendency to confirm foreigners’ worst nightmares of violent American life in the sticks, but lack of a powerful conclusion to the final notes of moral uncertainty will curb theatrical, if not ancillary, options. Still, ambiguity over whether or not the pic actually advocates vigilantism makes “Dunsmore” a noteworthy fest addition.
Scowled at by everyone in Dunsmore, thuggish Ronny (W. Earl Brown) blows into town, gets drunk at a bar, and, outside, is gunned down by some 40 rounds of buckshot. The media descends, lending early sequences an uneasy comic accent, but the all-business Taylor (Kareem Hardison) from the state’s attorney general’s office wants to get to the bottom of what may be a vigilante case.
He’s hosted by the pleasant, mild-mannered Sheriff Miller (Rus Blackwell), who intros him to Mildred (Talia Shire), wife of the local preacher found dead three weeks previously. Like other Dunsmorites, she claims to have heard or seen nothing on the night of Ronny’s slaying. But the storytelling shifts into a more extended flashback mode — at first, for fascinating effect — when Taylor interviews both of Ronny’s wives, whom he lived with under the same roof. Much-abused older wife Irma Jean (Jeannetta Arnette) and younger teen wife Ruby (Alicia Lagano) give different accounts of Ronny; first, as a horrific, loutish brute, and second, as a caring husband.
Portrait of Ronny is of the prototypical town bully who raises the stakes to terrorism and threats on witnesses’ lives when he’s on trial for one of his innumerable offenses.
Miller meanwhile, is viewed as a softer lawman than his rougher predecessor, Sheriff Breen (Barry Corbin), seen in yet two more flashbacks as the one guy who knows how to put Ronny in his place. Another spasm of violence at a gas station in still one more flashback contains the feel of a Sam Fuller film in its sudden, random brutality.
Final revelations will either satisfy or raise hackles, depending on the viewer’s predilections, but there’s no doubting how Brown — like Ronny taking over Dunsmore — takes over the movie. Pic’s other thesps rely on hick stereotypes, though Arnette is particularly effective as a domestic victim. Shire seems to have popped in from another movie, and, in a critical role, Hardison isn’t nearly as interesting as he should be.
Tech aspects are efficient if not expressive, with editors Miklos Wright and Robert Gordon getting a workout.