Sunday, September 14, 2014

Deliverance Creek (Nicholas Sparks Productions/Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime movie was a lumbering production called Deliverance Creek, heavily hyped because it was not only based on a story written by blockbuster romance novelist Nicholas Sparks but made by his production company (though it’s hard to tell whether Sparks had anything to do with actually constructing the story for this because Melissa Carter is listed as the only credited writer on, with Jon Amiel as director). My only previous experience with the work of Nicholas Sparks is the film version of his novel Nights in Rodanthe, which has actually been shown on Lifetime several times but which I actually bought on DVD, mainly because my hero Christopher Meloni was in it as the second lead (as the cheating husband the heroine, played by Diane Lane, leaves, thereby making herself available for a rebound affair with disgraced doctor Richard Gere — it doesn’t sound like much in synopsis but it was actually pretty good within the limits of the romance genre, and having Meloni and Viola Davis in the supporting cast didn’t hurt either!), but on the basis of Deliverance Creek I suspect Sparks is a decent writer dealing with contemporary reality but is totally at sea trying to create historical fiction. Deliverance Creek takes place in 1863, at about the midpoint of the U.S. Civil War, and it’s centered around the efforts of Deliverance Creek, Missouri landowner (her place is described throughout the dialogue as a “ranch” but it looked like an ordinary farm to me) Belle Gatlin Barlowe (Lauren Ambrose, who deserves kudos for bringing some semblance of credibility to a part whose writers wrote her all over the moral, emotional and psychological map) to maintain her land and keep her three kids fed, clothed, sheltered and alive in the face of relentless pressures from both sides.

The film actually opens in Kansas, where a band of Confederate irregulars (today they’d be called “unlawful combatants” and they’re described later as part of the band organized by William Quantrill, which launched the outlaw careers of Jesse and Frank James) disguised in Union uniforms ambushes a genuine Union unit and massacres them all — except for a man who spares his own life by telling them that a shipment of gold is about to arrive at a bank in Deliverance Creek, Missouri to be used to pay the Union soldiers, and if the Confederates can steal that gold they can not only fatten their own war coffers but destabilize the Union army because the soldiers that were expecting to get paid won’t be. The Confederates are led by Belle’s brother Jasper Gatlin (Christopher Backus) but also include a psycho who cuts off their informant’s ears on the spot because he didn’t hear the most important part of the information: when the gold payroll will arrive. The bank it’s arriving at is owned by matriarch Cordelia Crawford (Katherine Willis) and her sons Ben (Joel Johnstone) and Jeb (Barry Tubb); Jeb is a Union commander looking for Jasper and convinced that Belle is shielding him — which she is; he arrived wounded by a Union bullet and she hid him out, removed the bullet herself and is letting him and his band stay there while he recuperates — though when she receives word a Union raiding party is about to come to her farm to search for them, she tells the healthy ones to leave and hides Jasper in her cellar. The cellar is a quite popular place because it’s also being used by Belle’s sister Hattie (Caitlin Custer) to hide the members of a slave family she’s helping to escape. One of the slaves, Moses Washington (Tishuan Scott), is an ordinary field hand who’s later captured by the Confederates, who whip and torture him just for the hell of it, but his wife (they weren’t officially married but they “jumped the broomstick”) Kessie (Yaani King) is a house servant who knows how to read and write, and also figured out how to steal the key to her master’s safe so she could steal money and his seal, along with paper and ink she used to forge a set of papers declaring herself free. I’ll say one thing for Sparks and Carter; they’ve created a set of characters with believably mixed motives that don’t neatly fall into “hero” or “villain” categories — Kessie is virtually the only person in the story, white or Black, who’s totally sympathetic — but they’ve also enmeshed these people in so many different story lines and plot threads it’s difficult to figure out moment-by-moment just what this movie is supposed to be about.

Eventually the Union raiding party shoot and kill Belle’s oldest child, her son Caleb (Judah Lewis, who looks in his mid-teens instead of the character’s stated age of 12) after messing up her place in what seems to be gratuitous throwing their weight around (do they really think they’re going to find a Confederate fugitive literally hiding in a bread box?), since they see him coming down the stairs wearing Jasper’s spurs (a gift from Jasper earlier) and assume he’s Jasper. This propels Belle into seeking her revenge against the Crawfords by joining the Confederates’ plan to rob their bank — which she insists will happen her way, by having the local pro-Southern whores steal the Crawfords’ keys long enough for Kessie to make impressions and then having the robbers tunnel through the nearby saloon/whorehouse (where on the night of the robbery there’s a colossal distraction as both Union and Confederate forces seek to use the bar — and presumably the whores as well — and they confront each other, with the Confederates holding forth with “Dixie” until the Union commander holds a gun to the bar pianist’s head and forces him to play “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — obviously Sparks and Carter modeled this preposterous scene on the famous “Marseillaise” sequence in Casablanca and fell far, far short of their model) so they can break into the bank, open the vault, steal the money and sneak out again in the cover of darkness with no one the wiser and no one getting killed or needing to fire a gun. Only Cordelia Crawford catches on because at the last minute she has the vault changed from a key lock to a combination, and just in case the robbers get in anyway (and guess who figures it out? It’s Kassie, a.k.a. Superblack, who teaches herself safe-cracking in the nick of time; in case you’re wondering why she’s helping the Confederates it’s because she’s hoping that her share of the bank loot will be enough to buy her whole family’s legal freedom) she stations Ben Crawford with a gun behind the vault to shoot anyone who breaks in. But it’s the robbers who get the first shot and Ben falls dead — which leaves Belle in a stew of mixed loyalties since he’s the brother of the man who killed her son, but he’s also the boyfriend of her sister and he’s risked his life to help fugitive slaves escape. (I’ll say one thing for Deliverance Creek: it’s one U.S. Civil War movie that says unambiguously that slavery was bad.)

Deliverance Creek seems less like a self-contained movie and more like the opening chapter of a serial — it ends pretty inconclusively, with the Confederates getting the bank loot out of town by hiding it in wooden coffins ostensibly containing the bodies of smallpox victims and Belle left alone on the farm with her two remaining kids, the ex-boyfriend who was actually Caleb’s father even though her own dad forced her to marry someone else (and who, of course, still wants her) and a bunch of Union soldiers sniffing around her place because she was wearing a chain with a ring through it around her neck, and director Amiel cuts ominously from a Union soldier finding it at the scene of the robbery (ah, a Clue!) to Belle feeling around her neck and discovering it missing. Deliverance Creek might actually work as a series — at least the hour-long format of conventional episodic television would force Sparks and whatever writers are assisting (or ghosting for) him on this project to confine themselves to one or, at most, two storylines per episode — but as a stand-alone TV-movie it’s a woeful failure, giving us not only way too many plot lines to follow but nobody (aside from Kessie) to root for. It’s nice to be reminded that the Civil War was a morally ambiguous struggle when it was occurring and people took up arms for one side or the other for reasons that had little to do with the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the South’s “peculiar institution” and the “states’ rights” dogma the Southerners came up with to justify it — and even the people who were doing the “right” thing by our modern-day standards were often doing it for personal or financial reasons that blow the whole image of the Civil War as a brutal struggle fought over High Moral Principles. But one would think that artists as different as Bruce Catton and Ken Burns (from whose Civil War documentary the makers of Deliverance Creek copied the gimmick of having a scratchy solo violin be their main musical instrument) had made that point already!