Sunday, July 12, 2009

In God's Country (CTV/Shaftesbury/Lifetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran one of the Lifetime TV-movies I recorded the night before: In God’s Country, one I’d been particularly interested in seeing because of its provocative (albeit safely provocative) subject matter: polygamy among breakaway Mormon sects. In this movie the sect is called “Harmony” and its motto is “Keep sweet” — “sweet” being defined as a proper relationship to God and His representatives on Earth, a creepy-looking bald guy known only as “The Prophet” (played by the appropriately named Marc Strange, who looks like a cross between Yul Brynner and Boris Karloff) and his second-in-command, Bishop Josiah Leavitt (a marvelously sinister Richard Burgi).

“The Prophet” has told Josiah that he’s fatally ill and is looking for a successor, and the hint is that Josiah can have the job as long as he shows he can control his own family — but Josiah is having a little problem with the increasingly restive wife number eight, Judith Leavitt (Kelly Rowan, top-billed), and her five kids. Her oldest, daughter Charlotte (Martha MacIsaac), is actually the child of Judith’s first husband, a sect member who was thrown out for apostasy and whose wives were taken away from him and reassigned to Bishop Josiah — and who responded by killing himself. Judith is feeling put upon by the demands of the authoritarian sect — though Kelly Rowan is so limited and inexpressive an actress that she spends the entire movie showing no emotion beyond a hang-dog look on her face that suggests she needs a hit of Pepto-Bismol immediately before she pukes — but what finally makes her decide to leave is when “The Prophet” decides that in order to restore discipline to their sect, he needs to take a few more wives himself and one of those he chooses is Judith’s 12-year-old daughter Alice (Hannah Lochner).

Judith sets fire to their house on the sect’s land and flees with her children, then makes contact with the authorities — whom she’s already heard from when Charlotte was raped by a young male sect member who told her he needed to “check her out” to determine her suitability for bride-hood. The girl broke her arm while trying to fight back, and the cult circled the wagons by inventing the preposterous cover story that she leaped off a barn roof into a hay bale and broke it accidentally — and the cult’s security goons, who ride motorcycles through the compound all day looking for all manner of unauthorized goings-on, caught Judith trying to tell the authorities the true story. Anyway, once she finally breaks free of the cult she contacts Child Services, who find her a place to stay and give her a voucher for food; and, spending the voucher at “Adam’s Market” (a nice piece of symbolism from writers Esta Spalding and Peter Behrens), she runs into Louise (Lynda Boyd), a grocery clerk who befriends her and ultimately gets her a job at the market … where she’s flummoxed by the grocery scanner since she’s never handled a piece of equipment like that before (it’s been established that the Harmony sect is self-supporting; its compound is also a fully functioning farm and all their food is home-grown). Judith also meets Officer Wayne (he had a last name but doesn’t list it), played by Peter Outerbridge, and there’s a hint of burgeoning romantic interest between the two.

The climax occurs when Charlotte, who misses life at Harmony and especially misses her boyfriend Jamie (Kristopher Turner — an actor who looks like every cute but dorky-looking Mormon missionary who ever tried to hand you a copy of The Book of Mormon on a streetcorner or a bus), betrays them and returns to the cult, lured back by Bishop Josiah’s promise to let her marry Jamie despite the policy decision of “The Prophet” that the young women need the “spiritual guidance” of much older men as their husbands (yeah, right … ), only in the final scene we find out it’s a trap: Bishop Josiah really intends to marry Charlotte (his stepdaughter, remember) himself but doesn’t plan to tell her until she actually shows up for the ceremony — and in the meantime he’s assigned the church’s goon squad (including the man who actually raped Charlotte earlier on) to beat up Jamie and throw him off the property. Judith drives to the compound, hoping to enlist the aid of local law enforcement to get her daughter out of there before her ex forces her to marry him, and Officer Wayne picks up on where she’s going just in time to do the Seventh Cavalry act — and there’s a marvelously sardonic ending in which “The Prophet” decides it’s all Josiah’s fault for failing to control his women, so he declares that Judith and her family are free to leave and Josiah’s punishment is knowing he’s blown his chance to be “The Prophet”’s successor.

In God’s Country is one of those frustrating movies which has some original elements and could have been deeper and richer than it was. The Harmony cult seems draconian and oppressive — at times its level of control over its inhabitants evokes comparison with The Magdalene Sisters and 1984 — but it’s also depicted by director John L’Ecuyer and cinematographer Thomas M. Haring as a pastoral near-paradise, a bucolic bit of country whose people live simply, comfortably and in a way that would seem quite fulfilling to anyone who’d never experienced any other sort of life. (In that regard it’s quite different from the patch of Arizona desert inhabited by the real-life Mormon polygamist cult of the late Rulon Jeffs and his son and successor, Warren, that was the writers’ obvious inspiration for their story.)

At times the writers and director appear aware of just how traumatic it would be for anyone who’d been born and raised there to leave, and how hard it would be for them to struggle to survive in the outside world (when Alice and Mark enroll in non-cult schools for the first times in their lives, the school principal is impressed by Alice’s intelligence and skill but finds Mark two years behind his normal development — because after sixth grade he was pulled out of school to work on the cult’s farm). There’s a marvelous scene of culture shock when, on their first trip to Adam’s Market, the kids see Playboy-type magazines for the first time and can’t conceive of how or why anyone would publish and sell photos of naked women. Ultimately, though, In God’s Country blows as many opportunities as it hits — and it’s predictable enough that all Charles had to see was an early establishing scene of Bishop Josiah presiding over a congregation consisting mostly of women in 19th century dresses to guess what the movie was about: “Lifetime vs. polygamy.”