Originally known as “The Volunteers” — the name that still appears prominently on the movie’s website — “American Insurrection” now bears a title that could spark expectations for a modern-day version of the topical exploitation fare that was a mainstay during the 1960s for American-International Pictures. (Think “Riot on Sunset Strip,” “Wild in the Streets,” etc.) But William Sullivan’s small-budget indie has much loftier aspirations than such teen-pandering product once did. For better or worse, just about the only plot element here that feels like a bad hangover from the ’60s is the fate of a character too ashamed to acknowledge his sexual identity.
Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Jarret Kerr, one of the lead players, Sullivan takes a chamber drama approach to depicting life in an America largely controlled by white supremacists whose goals and tactics might seem extreme even to Tucker Carlson (if not his loyal viewership). Indeed, it’s easy to imagine someone taking another pass at the script and adapting it into a stage play set inside the secluded cabin where most of the interactions take place, and focused almost entirely on the central dramatis personae: two couples hoping to escape to Canada, a stranger who inadvertently complicates matters, and an Afghan war vet turned right-wing militiaman kept prisoner in a nearby barn.
How did it all come to this? The backstory is parceled out through opaque flashbacks that raise more questions than they answer. Evidently, a charismatic right-wing zealot organized and encouraged groups of Proud Boyish militants that gradually coalesced into a coast-to-coast army known as The Volunteers, heavily armed haters dead set on corralling and controlling anyone who isn’t straight, Christian and, of course, white. (If anyone gets killed during this crackdown, well, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.) The zealot — played by Toby Leonard Moore in TV clips — successfully ran for US President (on a ticket that included, no kidding, forgiving all student debts) and remains in power by employing The Volunteers as a national police force.
Or something like that. That’s what I was able to deduce from the flashbacks. Truth to tell, Sullivan and Kerr are less interested in the particulars of the threat than in the fact that the threat exists.
In the opening minutes of “American Insurrection,” we learn Sarah (Sarah Wharton) and her husband Jarret (co-scripter Jarret Kerr) have been hiding out in a cabin near the Canadian border for a lengthy period, organizing a sort of underground railroad for folks who want to escape the tyranny of The Volunteers. They’ve been able to remain undetected as long as they have because the homes of Volunteer militiamen are considered to be in no-fly zones, off-limits to surveillance drones. And the cabin they have sequestered belongs to a Volunteer, Gabe (Michael Raymond-James), whom they keep chained in a nearby barn.
Rightly figuring their good luck can’t hold out indefinitely, Sarah and Jarret intend to go along for their ride with their Canada-bound friends Zahabiya (Nadine Malouf), a Muslim whose family was killed in a Volunteer-planned mosque bombing, and David (Nick Westrate), her husband, a nurse who’s a tad too fond of alcoholic self-medication. Trouble is, Sarah insists on waiting to get a radio message from loved ones for guidance toward the best escape route.
This gives time for long conversations. More talk, along with an uptick in erotic tension, is generated by Arjay (Brandon Perea), a young gay Filipino who helps Sarah during an incident at a Volunteer checkpoint that has tragic long-range consequences.
“American Insurrection” proceeds at a pace best described as leisurely — or, less charitably, sluggish — but the well-cast lead actors infuse their characters with a persuasive and compelling sense of urgency, greatly enhancing the stretches of worst-case scenario suspense.
Malouf and Raymond-James are especially effective as Zahabiya and Gabe warily approach something resembling common ground during conversations that are the most provocative scenes in the entire movie. Despite the deaths of her family members caused by Volunteers, she is sufficiently empathetic to attempt an understanding of his supremacist beliefs; he initially makes no excuses for his past, but gradually realizes that it’s more difficult to despise individuals than to hate entire groups.
The filmmakers emphasize that Zahabiya is the only one on her side of the divide who doesn’t dehumanize Gabe — “dog” is the nicest word they have for him — in ways similar to those that define the Volunteers’ contempt for anyone they view as trying to “replace” them. It’s a heavy-handed irony, perhaps, but it’s also believable in this context. Hate, after all, is highly contagious.