Monday, August 26, 2013

Escape from Polygamy (Indy Entertainment/Lifetime, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Escape from Polygamy, a production of something called “Indy Entertainment,” directed by Rachel Goldenberg from a script by Damon Hill — whose original working title for the film, Ryder and Julina, indicated that the obvious parallels he was inserting to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were deliberate. Julina (Haley Lu Richardson) is a 17-year-old girl who’s been brought up in a breakaway sect of the Mormon church that still allows (and even encourages) polygamy, though apparently her father never took more than one wife, Julina’s mother Leann (Mary McCormack, the remarkable actress from the USA Network series In Plain Sight playing a very different sort of role). After Julina’s dad croaks of a heart attack in front of her, the head of their sect, “prophet” Ervil Barlow (William Mapother — Tom Cruise’s cousin; “Mapother” is the original family name), orders Leann to become the fourth wife of one of the key figures in the cult, Merril (Sam Hennings), and to move onto the cult’s main compound. Julina is unused to the regimented lifestyle at cult central and is electrified when she meets a hunky young man named Ryder (played by the truly drop-dead gorgeous Jack Falahee, whom I’d definitely like to see more of) who turns out, much to Julina’s astonishment, to be the Prophet’s only son and chosen heir. Ryder starts cruising her in spite of the cult’s strictures against any men and women not only getting together and doing the down ’n’ dirty before the Prophet marries them but also against people selecting their own marriage partners: all the cult couples, singular or “plural” (to use Joseph Smith’s own euphemism), are paired by the Prophet. Julina is pleasantly surprised that the Prophet is a reasonably decent-looking man instead of the grizzled old codger she’d expected, but (in a plot twist that suggests Damon Hill’s reading list extended not only to Romeo and Juliet but Schiller’s — or Verdi’s — Don Carlos as well) she’s quite unhappy when the Prophet announces that he’s selected her as his next wife. So is Ryder, who like Don Carlos is understandably miffed that the woman he loves is about to become his stepmother.

Oddly, the Prophet doesn’t seem to be married to anybody and never has been except to Ryder’s mother, who mysteriously “disappeared” from the cult several years previously — though that hasn’t stopped him from having sex with anyone on the compound he wanted, including raping Julina’s overweight, learning-disabled 13-year-old friend Esther (Presley Henderson) and getting her “with child.” When Esther’s water breaks and she’s about to give birth, Julina’s mom Leann, who trained as a nurse in the outside world so she could help the cult’s women give birth without the intervention of the medical establishment (needless to say, Ervil doesn’t want outside doctors coming onto the compound and he’s even less thrilled about sending anyone out for medical care), takes charge of the case and delivers a healthy baby girl but is unable to save Esther’s life. This is just fine with the Prophet, as it turns out, not only because he was the father of Esther’s child but because he was worried that if she’d lived she’d have “outed” him as her rapist and her kid’s dad. Ervil expels his son Ryder from the camp and turns him out in the middle of the desert; Ryder manages to make it to Las Vegas and hook up — platonically — with his former friend Micah (Jake Weary), who was similarly expelled from the cult for not following the rules. Micah is blond, goes around shirtless, and leads a dissolute lifestyle involving drinking, drugs and male sex partners — though it’s not clear from Hill’s script whether Micah is “really” Gay or a basically straight boy who’s willing to hustle and have Gay sex for money. (In one scene in their hotel room he puts the moves on Ryder, who given that despite his expulsion from the cult he’s still a good little Mormon boy at heart is appalled, but it’s unclear whether Micah is actually trying to seduce Ryder or is just “showing him the ropes” of how to come on to men for pay.) In the film’s most powerful scene, the newly arrived Ryder goes into total culture shock when he’s turned loose on the Vegas strip — director Goldenberg, whose work in the rest of the movie is blessedly straightforward (without the music-video effects, flanging or other stupid tricks some Lifetime directors have used), gives us some incredible point-of-view shots as the lights of Vegas dazzle Ryder both literally and figuratively, symbolizing a whole sort of life he’d never dreamed even existed before: his only intimation of Vegas had been a photo of the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign Micah had sent him earlier. Anyway, despite the temptations of Vegas in general and Micah in particular, Ryder — who’s already done a D.I.Y. marriage ceremony with Julina reminiscent of the ones in Lucia di Lammermoor and the 1933 film Safe in Hell — resists and at the end is determined to return to cult central and get Julina out of there.

There’s a dramatic suspense ending with a few mind-numbing reversals as the film intercuts between Ryder’s and Micah’s invasion of the cult compound, the preparations for Ervil’s marriage to Julina, and Julina’s tearing her wedding gown into strips so she can hang herself with them, since she’s been imprisoned in a room with a locked door and barred windows and can see no other way out. Eventually Julina’s mom Leann insists on seeing her and they discover her hanging from the ceiling, apparently dead, and Ervil agrees to lead an impromptu funeral. He also catches Ryder on the property and beats him to within an inch of his life, leaving a picturesque scar across his forehead inflicted with a lead pipe (no, that was actually Professor Plum in the library!), and as in Shakespeare’s play it looks for a while as if both our young lovebirds are a-goner — only, this being a Lifetime movie instead of a literary masterpiece, it turns out that Julina and her mom faked her suicide, Ryder recovers from his injuries, someone else in the cult (it might be Leann’s husband Merril, but we’re not sure) shoots Ervil and thereby saves our lovebirds from his vengeance, and the film ends with Ryder and Julina getting the hell out of Dodge while Leann stays behind with Merril, the new cult leader, because “my life is here.” Merril preaches a sermon announcing that Ervil has gone to Mexico to start a branch of the cult there, a twist reminiscent of Ervil LeBaron, the real-life polygamist cult leader who in the 1970’s ordered the murders of several people, including his brother Joel, whom he thought were threats to his power (obviously Damon Hill got the first name of his “Prophet” from this real-life one), and who traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico (where his father, Alma Dayer LeBaron, Sr., had fled in 1924 to practice polygamy away from the mainstream Mormon church’s ban) and reportedly killed people on both sides of the border. (Indeed, according to the Wikipedia page on Ervil LeBaron, he continued to order killings even after his own death in prison in 1981; he supposedly left a 400-page manuscript called The Book of the New Covenants in which he listed people he wanted his remaining followers to murder, and some of those people were indeed killed over the next decade.) Escape from Polygamy is a pretty predictable movie but it’s well made, well cast (William Mapother and Jack Falahee look enough alike they’re actually believable as father and son, a rarity in any movie), well directed and decently written within the conventions and some of the forced Romeo and Juliet parallels. It’s not as intense, dramatic or thrilling as Baby Sellers — the “original Lifetime movie” premiered the previous weekend — but then few things on Lifetime are that good.