Monday, February 6, 2012

Secrets of Eden (Craig Anderson Productions, SOE Films, Lifetime, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched the Lifetime TV-movie Secrets of Eden — “Eden” in this case being a small town in Vermont whose main industry, if you can call it that, is selling overpriced antiques to tourists — and it begins with voice-over narrations by a young minister who’s just been hired to take over the church in Eden (just what denomination of Christianity is unspecified, but it’s one that does total-immersion baptisms since one figures prominently in the plot) and a young woman who isn’t identified but turns out to be Katie Hayward, daughter of Alice (Sonya Salomaa) and George Hayward. George is the owner of a chain of sporting-goods stores and he and Alice have what seems from the outside to be a perfect marriage, but behind closed doors he regularly beats her. She finally gets up the courage to throw him out of the house after one particularly brutal assault — she makes his departure the condition for her not pressing charges against him — largely because through this period she’s been going through “pastoral counseling” from Pastor Stephen Drew (John Stamos), and after George leaves (though they’re still married) she and Stephen get hot ’n’ heavy with each other and have a sexual affair (shown by director Tawnia McKiernan in a hot bit of soft-core porn that’s considerably more exciting than the rest of the movie!), only Pastor Drew has guilt feelings about the affair and breaks it off on the night the two were supposed to take their first out-of-town trip together.

This leads Alice to decide to invite George to move back in and attempt a reconciliation — while they’ve been apart he continued to e-mail her poems (apparently he’s quite the romantic when he’s not beating her up) and he also bought their daughter Katie an expensive pair of sports shoes to help her as a soccer player. Only Alice, who’s been reconnecting with her spiritual roots in the Christian church and also developing some new ones with Heather LaRoche, local antiques dealer and New Ager who’s written a book called Angels and Aurascapes (“Aurascapes” is also the name of her shop). She decides to be baptized in Pastor Drew’s church; George has a jealous hissy-fit over that and gets even crazier after it’s happened. He demands to know what she was wearing when she did the total immersion, and when she says, “A long shirt over a bathing suit,” he accused her of making a public spectacle of herself and thereby embarrassing him, which leads him to a fight in which he ultimately strangles her to death. Then we hear a shot and see a flash from the house, and at first the killings are reported as a murder-suicide until someone from the Eden police’s CSI unit (or whatever they call it) figures out that the gunshot that killed him went in at an angle that could not possibly have been a suicide shot.

The police immediately fasten onto Pastor Drew as a suspect, and prosecutor Catherine Benicasa (Anna Gunn — she’s described on the page for this film — which lists only five of its actors — as a police detective but that’s not how she comes across in the film; indeed, given her blonde hair, severe demeanor and utter conviction in Drew’s guilt, she strikes me as a portrait of what Nancy Grace must have been like before she quit her job as a prosecutor and joined Fox News) goes after him with about as much professional detachment as Javert showed in his pursuit of Jean Valjean. Eventually she finds the journal Alice kept, which gives us much of the backstory of her relationships with both her husband and Drew (this film is non-linear in ways that just seem arbitrary and confusing, and one sometimes has to look closely at Sonya Salomaa’s hair style to determine just when a flashback scene is taking place), and Katie says that her family’s dog would have gone after a stranger attacking their home or anyone in it, leading to Pastor Drew because he, alone of all the townspeople who didn’t actually live at the Haywards’, was friendly with the dog.

Pretty early on I became convinced that this film (written by Anne Meredith, adapting a best-selling novel by Chris Bohjalian) was going to end with Katie turning out to be her father’s murderer because, after killing her mom, he had tried to rape her — Bohjalian and Meredith didn’t quite go that far but they did have Katie be her dad’s killer (she came home early — she had gone to a concert with friends and was supposed to sleep over there but she wanted to fetch her laptop — discovered her mom dead and her dad sitting in a chair, drinking, barely conscious but still very much alive, and shot him) and Pastor Drew actually helped her get away with it, saying he’d set up the scene to look like suicide and, if that didn’t fool the police, they would leak evidence implicating him so she would not be suspected. Secrets of Eden was an O.K. movie that had the potential to be much better than it was, and the key thing wrong with it was McKiernan’s sluggish direction, way too slow and dull for what was supposed to be a thriller — though in general the movie was well acted and, aside from a somewhat far-fetched resolution, was great bad fun. It didn’t help that Drew has a brief affair with Heather after Alice dies (or that he calls her “Alice” in bed!) — John Stamos is, as he was in his youth, a decent-looking but hardly drop-dead gorgeous hunk of man-meat and it’s hard to believe two women in the dramatis personae both found him irresistible; frankly, I found the actor playing the abusive husband far more visually appealing!