April 3, 2020

She Who Must Burn (2015)

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Starring Sarah Smyth, Shane Twerdun, Jewel Staite, Missy Cross

Directed by Larry Kent

 

Let’s get one thing crystal clear: Larry Kent, director of She Who Must Burn, doesn’t sugarcoat a goddamn thing. He doesn’t shy away from discussing issues like abortion and rape, nor does he charge at them with the heavy-handedness of a liberal arts freshman. He doesn’t offer breaks for decompression. He doesn’t put a single quip or funny moment in his movie.

Most importantly, Larry Kent doesn’t give a shit if this bothers you. You’re either along for the ride or not, and the man’s too busy making art to consider your feelings toward his methods.

With that out of the way, I’ll forewarn you: there’s nothing enjoyable about She Who Must Burn. It’s a gloomy, politically-charged, slow-burn exercise in tension. It’s also a strong thesis on issues which tear apart families and turn friends into enemies. The only people I can imagine cracking a smile during this movie are Cormac McCarthy and Lars von Trier, each of whom seem to have influence on the story. There are no pretty speeches or Kevin Costner moments, either; dialogue is sharp and fast, delivered with impassioned fervor mirroring those on either side of the issues.

Despite the depressive nature of the story, no one can claim they’ve been tricked into enduring it. Right off the bat, the tone of the film is set when an anti-abortion fundamentalist enters a health clinic and shoots a doctor in front of his staff, reciting Ezekiel 25:17 (“The Path of the Righteous Man.”) As credits begin, “Amazing Grace” begins to play, which is perfect juxtaposition to lay groundwork for the upcoming battle of wills.

Each main character’s introduction reveals a lot of depth in very little time. We’re first introduced to Angela (Sarah Smyth) and Mac (Andrew Moxham), a loving couple who are, by comparative analysis, the protagonists. Mac is deputy at the local police department, which is led by an incompetent sheriff (Jim Francis) who avoids trouble with religious folk at all cost. Angela worked at the clinic where the doctor was murdered, and since the clinic has been shut down, she is the only resource available to women in the small mining town who want birth control pills or medically-accurate advice on whether or not they can survive pregnancy complications. The town has had a lot of stillbirths in recent months, and cancer has spread like a plague, but rather than casting blame on the coal mines which keep the town’s economy alive, a mob led by far-right religious fundamentalists decides Angela’s to blame for God’s wrath. Despite constant harassment by protesters camped outside their home, Angela and Mac decide the services they provide are too valuable for them to be driven away. The sheriff warns Mac: “You don’t know these people.”

The ante is quickly upped, beginning with a scene between the religious group’s smug leader, Jeremiah (Shane Twerdun), and his wife Margaret (Jewel Staite). He comes to her after a church service and says the Lord told him privately they must make a baby. When she gives a clear lack of consent, he tells her he doesn’t care what she wants if it’s the Lord’s will, and he forces himself onto her. The fear in Margaret’s expression signals this isn’t the first time he’s used “communication with the Lord” to exercise his own desires, but it seems this latest rape—both spiritual and physical—pushes her to her breaking point: she reveals to Jeremiah she’s taking birth control so that she won’t bear his child. He loses his temper and beats her, horribly, while asking “Why’d you make me do this?” Whether he’s directing the question at Margaret or God is ambiguous.

The big trouble begins at the end of the first act, when Margaret tells Angela, in secret, everything her husband’s done to her. Angela is the type of person who puts the health concerns of others before her own image or personal safety, and she immediately decides to help Margaret escape Jeremiah and his cult. Jeremiah finds out what Angela’s done—after Margaret’s long gone, thankfully—and that’s when all Hell breaks loose.

I won’t spoil where the story goes from here, but rest assured, things get incredibly gory as law enforcement repeatedly relinquishes power to the religious cult, and the very worst fears of several innocent characters come true. You’ll wince, cover your eyes, and maybe even vomit a few times, believe me. The slow-burn pacing is totally worth the payoff, even if by that point your knuckles are bloodied from punching walls in frustration.

I feel the need to repeat myself—the tension in this movie is palpable. Although the writing is great and the photography certainly helps build a believable story, I’m giving full credit for this tension to the leading men and women. The casting is goddamn pitch perfect, top to bottom, and I doubt another combination of actors could’ve inspired such unease.

First and foremost, hats off to Smyth and Staite, who take on the heaviest subject matters with their characters. Both characters suffer terribly, and although not all the violence done upon them is physical or even depicted on-screen, the performances given completely sold me on the inner turmoil behind each woman’s eyes. Let’s not shortchange how impressive a feat this is—Smyth’s character puts her life at risk by remaining a private practitioner in a town filled with people who openly claim murder is okay if they believe it’s done in the Lord’s name; Staite’s character is forced into the role of “docile, obedient wife” by her Fred-Phelps-slash-Norman-Bates husband, and struggles to negotiate the God she has faith in with the God her husband demands she appease. Not many of these struggles are stated outright, so without such brilliant character work, I might have had a hard time sensing these layers.

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And let’s not forget Twerdun’s work as Jeremiah, the wickedest man with a perpetual grin ever to haunt your screen. He radiates self-assuredness, and the will of his God, whether He exists or not, is an unstoppable force unbeholden to law enforcement, threats at gunpoint, or even the oncoming storm which has already caused multiple casualties. His soft voice and hard eye contact kept me on the edge of my seat, because he’s a character who can make a character retract their previous statement with a mere blink, and the insinuation of what he might do is nearly as scary as the things he actually does.

Grab some Xanax, have a calming friend nearby, and let your religious leader know you’ve got him on speed dial—you will need a recovery period by the time the credits roll. If you’re feeling adventurous, and want to add levity to an otherwise bleak movie, try synching it up with Marilyn Manson’s “Holy Wood,” which complements the story surprisingly well.

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