The miracle of She Who Must Burn, a film perhaps most efficiently described as Red State for grown-ups, is that it offers three well worn elements – scripture quoting after committing an abhorrent act of violence (and the Ezekiel quote from Pulp Fiction, no less), the phrase “a storm is coming” and ironic use of religious hymns – in its opening minutes. And yet it manages to mine all of them for powerful new ideological and emotional spaces. It is daring to offer a promise of an ending directly in the title, but like the Paul Greengrass directed account of flight United 93, squaring an inevitability of events with the audience early on, allows the viewer to focus on what is at the heart (and on the minds) of the characters caught in a terrible drama unfolding.
The setting is a microscopic rural town, far enough and impoverished enough to render cellphones and internet absent. This is the place where people confronted each other face to face rather than social media. They talk in kitchens or on front lawns, and the telephones are made of bakelite. The tone feels cinematically timeless, and dramatic tension often derives in the conflict between apocryphal and artifice. In pictures like this, the miracle of artifice is miracle enough to tell the truth about the world. It reminded me of both Ed Gass-Donnelley’s Small Town Murder Songs and Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories. Fine company to be in, that.
Angela (Sarah Smyth, whose blonde haired and blue-eyed visage convincingly channels Naomi Watts) runs an abortion counselling service out of the home she shares with Deputy Sheriff Mac (Andrew Moxham). The local preacher, Jeremiah Baarker (co-writer Shane Twerdun) along with is his sister Rebecca (Missy Cross), her husband Caleb (Andrew Dunbar) and other members of the parish, are often picketing the ‘clinic’ because of their faith. That Mac and Angela live there out of wedlock further seems to embolden their activism-terrorism to the point of criminal trespassing. This is not in any way benign, because Jeremiah’s father is seen in the opening minutes of the film murdering an abortion doctor, and is happily sent off to prison for that crime to self-confirm his faith vs. the secular world.
After Jeremiah’s wife Margaret (Jewel Staite, as far away from the good ship Serenity as one can imagine) fails to consent to his ‘desire to procreate’ and she is severely beaten for her unwillingness, branded lack of faith, Margaret goes to Angela pleading help to get her out of town. A mandate from Jeremiah’s father in prison sees his children and Caleb framed in the wide-screen like soldiers in the most critical briefing of their lives. They are told to fight the good fight against godlessness and damn the consequences. This is dovetailed with a recent (rather graphic) miscarriage which has robbed Rebecca and Caleb of their own chance for children and events have driven Rebecca to an speaking-in-tongues possessed form of hysteria. Along with Jeremiah’s recently revealed impotence at controlling his wife and career the Baarkers resolve to get positively medieval on Angela. The eponymous act seems takes a decidedly human failing of a coping mechanism that is should be simply ‘God’s Will’ and instead is perverted into emotion over logic. Human weakness.
The authority of Baarker clan in the community, albeit a bit strained, has made the current (presumably elected) sheriff impotent and afraid to step in; to the point of asking Mac to quit his job, take his wife and get the heck out of his crazy town. The brave, but not very wise, chutzpah of Angela and Mac to stay (equal parts money problems and idealistic ideology) in spite of the very clear danger they are in is what drives the narrative. As I said before, hubris comes in all flavours. She Who Must Burn feels almost like a Western at times. Indeed, Kent has even described the film as a feminist western between two women, Angela and Rebecca who on occasion stand like titans of resolve above the men-folk. A side plot of one of the local coal miners and his wife dealing with a pregnancy complication that might prove fatal further adds resonance to the woman driving the narrative while the men (knowingly or unknowingly) get caught in the wake.
As Jeremiah’s calm (smug, actually) confidence starts to crack in the face of pushing the envelope of his father’s deeds, his wife’s independence, and his sister’s out-of-control madness, Twerdun performs body language marvels in essaying a man in crisis; how far his faith will take him against the ‘spirit of the law.’ When his sisters and followers really start to get out of hand, he has little choice but to be dragged to hell. It is subtle to watch this happen on screen, but very much there, which makes She Who Must Burn more than just a blunt parable, there are, to me, identifiable human foibles amongst the bombast. All the while, the very literal storm of thunderheads over the farmland is threatening to make matters, well, Biblical. The violence when it starts is small and nasty and he does not look away.
Across over 50 years, indie director Larry Kent has been creating in-your-face drama of such confrontational nature that success has eluded him along either a commercially successful track or the government funded tenure-for-life art-house Canadian path. David Cronenberg, whose early work was also released on the Cinepix label, Fritz Lang and even Warren Beatty were huge fans of the work from his early days, making earnest and uncompromising bohemian youth pictures such as The Bitter Ash and High. As filmmakers go, he is one of Canada’s best kept secrets, and his early 1960s films are excellent cultural documents of Montreal and Vancouver at the time, unafraid to be both raw and stylized.
After converting to digital in the early 2000s with Hamster’s Cage (which won the Jury Prize at the inaugural edition of Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas) and Vancouver based character study Exley, he has been re-asserting his voice by cantankerous force of will back onto the Canadian scene. With She Who Must Burn, Kent comes storming in with a drama that is both topical and timeless, and milks the poverty, politics and prejudices of small town Americana into a parable for human hubris. And not just the extreme branch christian right, but the seemingly sane secular left. One might be so inclined to film this as the kind of film that wouldn’t happen in Canada where universal health care and a more down-to-earth sensibility would likely diffuse the lather and frenzy that the film works its way toward. I’m cynical enough to not be entirely sure. Like Kent’s early pictures, there is a blunt, earnest, and honestly angry asking of the big questions that we humans try not to think about unless tragedy thrust such things into our laps.
She Who Must Burn is not an easy film to watch, its power will either dig deep into you to horrify or elicit uncomfortable laughter at how in-your-face it play its drama. The film seems practically designed to make distributors, programmers and other content providers run for the hills. I’m old enough to remember when they called that sort of thing art.