A traditional southern gothic, Septien delivers oddities from the perverse to the parochial with a straight face, and in the process restores the oddball genre to what might be called authenticity. The Rawlings boys haven't been the same since their brother ran away. Their orphanage of man-children features an angrier-than-Crumb graphic artist (Onur Tukel), a closeted cross-dresser who plays mum (Robert Longstreet), a "slow" but reliable farm hand that does everything but say "and name him George" (Jim Willingham) and a gaping hole where Cornelius used to be. Prodigal son and star athlete Cornelius (played by writer/director Tully) returns to his brothers after an 18-year absence, intent on hiding the reason for his departure. The answers come gushing out at the same time their house's sewer system bursts (a catharsis handled like the toxic substance it is). Numbers on this can't be big, a sad thing since the film aims to accomplish something pretty great: in homogenized America, Septien rebelliously resurrects a regional portrait that's not just rich but full of the uninflected aberrance that gives the south its smarmy heft, exoticism and (dare I say it) romance. Here, the landscape is more than a location.
As a star-basketball player, Cornelius was more than a source of family pride, his leadership created a sense of order for his brothers. Without him these brothers are only held together by their need to rattle their cage—which, of course, they can't leave lest they lose their thing to rattle. After the death of their parents they inherited the family farm, which the government now pays them not to work—but these men's obsolescence was dictated far before any Farm Bill was written. When Cornelius comes back, we see immediately why he took so long to return: decked out like a post-Wes Anderson vagabond, Cornelius has been using his mad-sports skill to hustle his way around the country, ostensibly running away from the sexual assault he suffered just when the world seemed safe and full of promise. Of course his brothers want to know why he left (reason enough for him to stay away) so Cornelius remains silent...until the plumber (Mark Darby Robinson) comes. Traveling with his young wife (Rachel Korine, wife of Harmonie), the plumber enters the home only briefly, deduces a considerable and non-metaphorical shit-festering-under-the-house problem and leaves. A tent-revival minister reminiscent of Reverend Horton Heat literally blazes a path to the house and offers to burn out the cancer that eats away at the boys. The demons surface—which most wouldn't expect in the context of a Christian ritual, but there they are—and with that all the whackjob melts off the Rawlings. For now.
The zeitgeist of Septien is easy to confuse with David Lynch's subverted suburbs, or Fellini's decadence—though it's not based in any of that perversion. John Huston's Wise Blood (based on the novel by Flannery O'Connor) is the closest analog I can find: in that film we see a young Brad Douriff wrestle with evangelism, searching as much for sacredness as some solution to his profoundly injurious "fear of God." In the novel, Jesus was a very real beast; O'Connor described him like a shaggy vagrant, leaping tree to tree in pursuit of the troubled protagonist. In that context, yes, tent revivals and all the charlatan-antics of the converters seem reasonable if not necessary—how else to deal with the scare-tactics of blood and bone religious figures? Here, Tully is excavating a culture we've scavenged for its shiny parts—this is why I say his character's costume recalls Anderson; we don't realize the quirk we cherish in indies has been foraged from other, harsher climes. Septien is digging for bedrock, even if there's shit beneath the beams, and while the execution is at times trying, the movie's doing god's work—culturally speaking.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Michael Tully, Rachel Korine, Robet Longstreet, Mark Darby Robinson, Onur Tukel, Jim Willingham
Director/Screenwriter: Michael Tully
Producers: Ryan Zacarias, Brent Stewart, Brooke Bernard
Running time: 80 min.
Release date: July 8 NY, July 15 Exp.