Brigham City

on April 06, 2001 by Wade Major
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It's rare that filmgoers find themselves treated to the reinvention of a genre, particularly one as entrenched in formula and steeped in tradition as the murder mystery. Yet that is precisely what awaits audiences of "Brigham City," the newest film from "God's Army" director Richard Dutcher.

Like "God's Army," which centered on the experiences of Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, "Brigham City" is a film targeted first and foremost to Mormon audiences, a niche market which Dutcher successfully exploited to make "God's Army" one of the most significant independent successes of 2000. But whereas "God's Army" explored matters of faith related to those who must dwell and work in the outside world, "Brigham City" casts its eye on a community of faith as it struggles with the encroachment of the outside world. It's a scenario certain to give the film an appeal far beyond that of an exclusively Mormon audience, striking an especially resonant chord in like-minded communities where the values of faith and family are deemed most sacrosanct.

As with most small municipalities, the fictitious town of Brigham City, Utah feels more like an extended family than a city. Most of the townspeople are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--the Mormon Church's formal name--and know each other as either friends or acquaintances. For Sheriff Wes Clayton (Dutcher) and his deputy Terry ("God's Army" star Matthew A. Brown), this limits their policing activities to coping with overflowing irrigation ditches or corralling the occasional rowdy construction worker. In many ways, it's an easier job than the one for which Clayton is not paid, as bishop and spiritual overseer for one of the town's many Latter-day Saint congregations. A routine patrol stop at an abandoned roadside homestead, however, yields a gruesome discovery that threatens to change everything: the bloodied, brutalized body of a young woman.

Confirming the victim to be an out-of-state passerby, Clayton defers to the FBI, hoping to keep the incident sufficiently low-key so as not to disrupt Brigham City's fragile sense of security. But a second murder elevates the stakes and raises the specter of a serial killer in their midst--a veritable wolf in the fold who will surely kill again if not stopped. No sooner has the grim news been leaked than the usual array of media vultures descend upon a town that was once scarcely on the map, bringing Clayton's worst fears to fruition as peace and tranquility are displaced by fear, suspicion and paranoia. For Clayton, it's the beginning of an ordeal that will blur the line between his responsibilities as a lawman and a clergyman. For a citizenry once secure in the blessings of its devoutly Christian faith, it is the beginning of a trial that promises to put that faith to the ultimate test.

In the end, it is "Brigham City's" focus on faith that sets it apart from more conventional murder mysteries. While exploiting the genre's underlying narrative structure, Dutcher has courageously chosen to dispense with its essential purpose, making the solution of the mystery less an end in itself than a means to a more humanistic end. It's a delicate balancing act--maintaining the tension of a mystery while emphasizing genuine empathy with the characters--that pays off handsomely, a forceful defense of the power of faith that evokes genuine emotion without the tacky trickery of melodrama.

Excellent work by composer Sam Cardon and editor Michael Chaskes, along with a talented cast of newcomers and veterans (including Brown, Carrie Morgan, Jon Enos and Wilford Brimley) contribute to the effort. Starring Richard Dutcher, Matthew A. Brown, Wilford Brimley, Carrie Morgan, Jon Enos, Tavya Patch, Jeff Johnson and Wendy Gardiner. Directed, written and produced by Richard Dutcher. A Zion release. Drama/Mystery. Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic material. Running time: 120 min

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