More than a half-century has passed since Larry Kent’s pioneering Canadian indie drama “The Bitter Ash,” but he’s still rubbing salt in societal wounds with “She Who Must Burn.” Roughly comparable to such recent Stateside indie horror films about religious cults as “The Sacrament” and “Holy Ghost People,” but ultimately punchier in narrative terms, this fictive sketch of fanatical Christian anti-abortion activists terrorizing a rural community makes up in brute power whatever it lacks in subtlety. It stands a good chance of reaching genre audiences (and possibly a few open-minded fans of topically themed drama) in home-format sales, with niche theatrical placements not out of the question.
A strange man parking himself in a doctor’s office turns out to be Abraham Baarker (James Wilson), who announces, “This is the vengeance of the Lord,” and shoots the doc point-blank before getting down on his knees to await police with a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The Baarkers, it seems, are already notorious as self-appointed vigilantes against perceived sin, particularly any form of birth control. With their patriarch hustled off to prison for murder, it falls to steely son Jeremiah (co-scenarist Shane Twerdun) to keep fighting the good fight, with assistance from his frothing-mad sister, Rebecca (Missy Cross); her browbeaten spouse, Caleb (Andrew Dunbar); and their small army of Westboro Baptist-like angry rubes.
This lot cast a long shadow over their rural community, where some women are afraid of getting any health care whatsoever for fear of reprisal. The Sheriff (Jim Francis) is loath to cross swords with the Bible thumpers even when they’re patently breaking the law. He’s thus dismayed when young deputy Mac (Andrew Moxham) announces his intention to stay in the area because his wife, Angela (Sarah Smyth), refuses to cave under pressure: The local clinic where she’d worked has been shuttered by cut funding, yet she feels obligated to remain, providing counseling and basic medical evaluation services to locals from a home office.
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This can only escalate friction with the Baarkers, who think Angela is in the business of “killing babies” 24/7. They likewise jump to inflamed conclusions about some of her clients — assuming a woman in need of breast-cancer treatment is actually facilitating an abortion for her teenage daughter, for instance. Their threatening front-yard vigil grows more personal when Angela helps Jeremiah’s fed-up wife (Jewel Staite) flee that abusive marriage. Adding to the general tension is a rising infant death rate in the area that sane minds might attribute to the local mining company’s ongoing pollution of the water supply, but which the Baarkers and their acolytes decide must be God’s punishment for Angela’s supposed crimes.
This can only get uglier, and Kent doesn’t spare delicate viewers’ feelings: Things go from bad to much, much worse, culminating in a primitive act (note the title) played out at excruciating length until all vicarious horror-movie pleasure in colorful violence is painfully stripped away. Less pointed is a deus-ex-machina element that raises the question of why divine justice, if it’s going to arrive at all, doesn’t arrive soon enough to spare several innocent lives. There’s also at times an element of caricature that compromises the film’s straightforward seriousness, in the physical presentation of Jeremiah’s character (with his hair plastered down, old-fashioned spectacles and such, he’s too redolent of certain Crispin Glover roles), and in Cross’ over-the-top but not quite convincingly lunatic turn. (She redeems herself, however, by co-penning and performing several eerily simple modern worship songs on the soundtrack as part of the Wooden Horsemen.)
Those quibbles aside, “She Who Must Burn” is strong meat, unabashedly melodramatic but also direct and harrowing enough to feel credible most of the time. While some (admittedly few likely to see the film) may object to the stereotyping of anti-abortion forces here as violently unstable, there’s little question that such extremism in the name of religion is on the rise among practitioners of many faiths. They’re a minority, yes, but one that’s not going away anytime soon.
Performances and packaging are unfussily pro, with d.p. Stirling Bancroft’s impressive lensing of the British Columbia landscapes offering a few moments of beauty in a grim context.