A likeness of Jesus on a screen door appears to the denizens of Bethlehem, a small town in East Texas. Scripter-helmer Kirk Davis admits he modeled his debut feature, based on short stories by Christopher Cook, on “Short Cuts.” Though Cook/Davis’ multi-stranded ensemble piece lacks the richness and vitality of Raymond Carver/Robert Altman’s, pic still is exceedingly well structured. Winner of the Golden Starfish fiction competition at the Hamptons fest, pic’s gutsy, madly ambiguous unleashing of a mixed bag of religious reactions attests to a genuine sense of regionalism. Dearth of dynamism and unevenness of thesping, however, make cable the likely next stop.
Davis wrangles his unwieldy cast and dozen or so stories extremely well. Despite the absence of recognizable stars, it is relatively easy to follow who’s who and what’s what. Most of the characters are introduced in a church contexts (there are the largely black swinging Pentecostals and the pious white-bread Baptists) and are significantly defined by that church affiliation or the lack thereof.
Thus banker George Herbert (Cliff Stevens) manages to interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan as a call to prudence, allowing him to deny a desperately needed loan to Harvey Collins (C. Anthony Jackson), the one black member of his congregation. Sexy missionary Sharon Beaudry (Alaina Kalanj) takes up with Bethlehem’s widowed sheriff (Myk Watford), but refuses to go all the way unless he converts, since she doesn’t want to be with someone she can’t spend eternity with.
A boy, Robroy Conroy (Eugene P. Williams), must watch as his grandmother (Franchelle S. Dorn) refuses to allow her son (Julius Tennon) to take his “sinful” wife (Silvia Moore) to the hospital (she swims nude in the river at night) because they don’t believe in medical intervention, even though she is slowly dying of some mysterious leprous malady. Yet by means of prayer by everyone in the family (even the grandmother), mom is miraculously cured and the family gathers in newfound harmony by her bedside.
Many undergo some kind of spiritual epiphany in the course of the film, though not always in the form one might expect. While guarding a church from busloads of chanting, sign-carrying homophobes, beefy security guard Hank Jeters (Josh Berry) is confronted with his first taste of religious relativism. When he claims the Bible is clear on what to do with homosexuals — i.e. stone them — his fellow-officer Duane (Mark Dalton) then enumerates all the other biblical candidates for stoning, including adulterers and those who see their sister naked by accident.
Duane, belonging to two very different worlds as guard and as guitar-playing country rocker, is also the most complicated of the town folk, waxing philosophical when in uniform with Hank but “cracker jealous” of his sex-pot girlfriend Ronnette (Scarlett McAlister) when down at the Drunk Tank where he plays.
The religious experiences of the characters tend to be far more nuanced and ambivalent than the characters themselves. In small doses and with characters juxtaposed against one another, Davis can create an illusion of complexity. But his shaky control of tone, particularly in pic’s more comic moments, sounds some unfortunate false notes, particularly in connection with the devoutly religious Mother Harper (Cynthia Dorn), on whose screen door Jesus appears.
Pic’s near-apocalyptic ending, set off by an illegal wildcat oil rig that figures into the town’s evolving morality play, wraps things up nicely and explosively.
Daniel Stoloff’s superlative 24P-camera work creates a variegated East Texas palette, avoiding both designer tastefulness and video garishness. Music by Max Lichtenstein is particularly evocative with rousing performances by the felicitously titled group Back Porch Mary.