Monday, May 29, 2017

Sinister Minister (Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I settled in and watched TV for the rest of the night, including one of the Lifetime “Premiere” movies that they’ve extended to Sunday as well as Saturday nights — and Lifetime’s “Premiere” for Sunday, May 28, 2017 was something with the risible title Sinister Minister (just try to say that without at least chuckling!), though it was filmed under the less silly but also less clear-cut title Brightside — spelled on the film’s page as one word even though the actual name of the town where it takes place is “Bright Side” — two words. The film begins with what’s by far its best sequence, a hot sexual encounter between the titular sinister minister, known only by his initials “D. J.” (Ryan Patrick Shanahan) and a woman he’s having an adulterous affair with, though he’s feeding her the usual malarkey about how God wouldn’t be making it possible for them to love (and screw) each other if God didn’t think it was right. Then D. J. receives word that his wife is dead — she was found hanged in their garage and the officials rule her death a suicide — and a typical Lifetime title advances the time frame to “Three Years Later.” Three years later D. J. is the minister in a small town called Bright Side, the woman we saw him adulterously fucking in the prologue is his wife, but he’s already set his sights on her replacement — or rather replacements, since he’s attracted to both Patricia “Trish” Corbett (Nikki Howard) and her daughter Sienna (Angelica Briones). Trish got pregnant with Sienna when she was just 15, though she must have married Sienna’s dad, since he’s discussed in the movie and there’s no indication he’s a step-parent — but the two divorced a year earlier and Sienna started cutting up, misbehaving, doing worse at school and smoking marijuana after her dad and mom broke up. Determined to keep her away from the big city and the kinds of trouble Sienna could get into there, Trish moves the two of them to Bright Side, where they check out D. J.’s church one Sunday morning. D. J. checks them out as well, much to Sienna’s initial displeasure — “Mom, he’s looking at my boobs!” she complains — and she makes it clear she’s bored by the whole church thing and suspicious of D. J.’s intentions towards her mom as well as her. 

Mom, however, is enthralled by the church in general and D. J. in particular, especially since the sermon he preaches the first day she goes there is about his past as the road manager for a famous rock band (the script — whose writer, a name otherwise unknown to me, is still unknown to me since she’s not identified on the page and all I remember about the name is it definitely looked like a woman’s), in which capacity he tried his best to keep up with the drug use and general dissipation of his employers until he found God, left the music business and settled down in Bright Side. The precise denomination of D. J.’s church is unspecified; it’s in an adobe (or faux adobe) building that reminded me of the small church in San Diego’s Old Town which served as the model for the one in which Ramona, the Native American heroine of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1890’s novel Ramona, and her Native partner Alessandro were supposed to have got married, except that was supposed to be a Roman Catholic church and whatever denomination D. J. is in, it must be one that allows its priests to be married openly. Whatever it is at the start, he’s so obviously drooling over both Trish and Sienna I half-expected him to announce to them, “I’ve decided to leave my church and become a Fundamentalist Mormon, so I can marry both of you.” D. J. first sets his sights on Trish, offering her a job when her previous employer, the owner of the “Friendly Joe’s” restaurant at which she was working as a waitress, fires her for taking calls on her cell phone at work. He’s got a wife already, but a sinister car accident out in the boonies around Bright Side takes care of that little problem; he lives, she dies and the authorities call it an “accident.” Then Sienna comes home a few days after D. J.’s last wife died in the “accident” and finds him and her mom necking on the couch, leaves in disgust and locks herself in her room to smoke pot. When D. J. tries to talk to her, she rather coldly informs him that his youth slang is about two decades out of date — presumably it was what was current when he was still roadie’ing for that mysterious big rock band — and Sienna is put out enough by her mom’s actions with D. J. that when the two actually get married (with the ceremony officiated by the Black assistant minister in his church) Sienna is nowhere to be found, just as she bolted the funeral service for D. J.’s immediately previous wife. 

This being a Lifetime movie, most of Bright Side’s little police force buys that the death of the previous Mrs. D. J. was an accident, but not female detective Leslie Mann (Rachel G. Whittle); she’s already suspicious that the minister has lost two wives in three years, and she gets even more suspicious when Trish’s ex, John Wells (Jeff Marchelletta, who was heftier but also hunkier than Ryan Patrick Shanahan, and I was certainly hoping the screenwriter would end the film with him and Trish reconciling!), turns up in Bright Side. Shortly after he arrives, he disappears and ostensibly takes Sienna with him — Trish finds her room empty and she’s left behind a computer-printed letter saying she’s left Bright Side to live in the city with her dad — but then a couple of hikers in the woods around Bright Side spot a body that turns out to be John’s. We then get a glimpse of a room at the town’s one hostelry, the “Bright Side Inn,” room #2 in a line of pretty shabby motel-like abodes, and Sienna is actually holing up there with D. J., who’s waiting for a chance to get rid of Trish and has promised Sienna that once her mom is out of the way, the two of them can be together. Just what on earth attracted Sienna to a man who initially repulsed her as much as D. J. did is a mystery our anonymous screenwriter never bothers to explain — but the film leads to a typical Lifetime confrontation scene as mom slowly realizes D. J. is poisoning her (and even finds an ampule of a sickly green fluid that appears to be what he’s using — though instead of doing the obviously sensible thing and taking the ampule to the police for analysis, she pours the stuff down the kitchen sink) and she, D. J. and Sienna meet in room #2 of the Bright Side Inn, Sienna threatens to stab D. J. for poisoning her mom, D. J. gets the knife away from her and says he’s going to make it look like Sienna killed her mom and then herself, but fortunately Detective Mann arrives to save the two women — including getting Trish to a hospital in time to save her from the effects of the drug D. J. gave her — and take D. J. into custody (it’s something of a surprise to see a Lifetime movie in which the principal villain is arrested at the end instead of killed).  

Sinister Minister was supposedly based on a true story, the arrest and conviction of Rev. Arthur Schirmer in 2013 for the murder of his wife Betty Jean in 2008, followed by his plea of no contest to a charge that in 1999 he killed his first wife Jewel — though the real Rev. Schirmer let nine years, not just three, pass between his two killings and as far as the online sources have it did not romance both a mother and her daughter the way D. J. does in the film. But it was in connection with the real-life Schirmer case that headline writers apparently coined the phrase “the sinister minister.” What’s weak about Sinister Minister the movie is that the writer and José Montesinos, who directed effectively given what he had to work with, really didn’t offer much insight into What Made D. J. Run — a passing remark he makes towards the end about having had an overprotective mother is as close as we get to an explanation for why he’s the way he is — and it also doesn’t help that the casting person, Scotty Mullen, came up with three women who look pretty interchangeable. When D. J. mistakes Sienna for Trish’s younger sister instead of her daughter, my only thought was, “You, too” — and Rachel G. Whittle as the woman cop who unravels the whole thing is on the same body type as the women playing the mother and daughter in distress: they’re all slender, athletic, with long, free-flowing straight black hair, and the only thing that distinguishes Whittle from the other two is that, as part of her playing the cop, she dresses in more butch-cut pants than Nikki Howard or Angelica Briones. Sinister Minister is frustrating because with a little more care, especially in the writing department, it could have been considerably better than the common run of Lifetime movies (where was Christine Conradt that week when they needed her?); instead it’s just another sporadically interesting film in which Ryan Patrick Shanahan’s performance as D. J. is neither subtle and complex enough to be a genuinely convincing seducer/villain nor flaringly psycho enough to make the character scary.