Brigham City

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
- Matthew 10:16

For those who haven't read the New Testament in a while, writer/director Richard Dutcher thoughtfully provides a Sunday School scene to teach us the above scripture. His Sheriff Wes Clayton (played by Dutcher) would surely do well to remember it, struggling to protect his small Utah town in the dual role of lawman and Bishop of his church ward. But as his deputy Terry (Matthew A. Brown) reminds him, you can't keep the world out, not even in Brigham City.

The lesson hits home fairly quickly, as Wes and Terry, Brigham's only police, drive by a red sports car abandoned in a field. As Wes approaches it, he sees bloodstains on the driver's seat, and finds a body in a nearby barn. Murder has come to Brigham.

If Wes has his way, the FBI will come in, take the body away, and conduct their investigation in Salt Lake City. The citizens of Brigham don't need to know about the evil that brushed against them. Unfortunately, shortly afterward the town beauty queen is found dead under the gazebo at the heart of the town.

As the former sheriff Stu (Wilford Brimley) dryly observes, "nothing attracts a serpent like paradise." One of the investigating FBI agents, Meredith (Tayva Patch), puts it more bluntly, "Congratulations, Sheriff. You have a serial killer."

Doing triple duty in the film, Dutcher has constructed a tight thriller without compromising his Mormon heritage. Yes, Brigham City is that rarity: a film about faith that actually puts its story first, managing to entertain as much as provoke thought.

Simply but expertly shot, the film only drags a little bit before the murders are discovered. Dutcher has a lot to explain to non-Mormon audiences about Church business, and does so through sometimes awkward exposition. But this is no conversion tactic; you really do need to know about it in order to understand why the people in the town act the way they do, all of it leading to an emotional pay-off that knows no particular religion.

As a thriller, the film works better than most of those turned out by the big studios this year. Certainly (and perhaps surprisingly) it treats murder more honestly and bloodily than last month's Domestic Disturbance. Both got a PG-13, but the Travolta thriller substituted swearing for clever dialogue, and so had to sacrifice blood.

Dutcher does neither. Once past the exposition, his characters come alive, speaking in the rhythms of real people, rarely coming out and saying what they mean. It's all too rare that a writer respects the audience enough to let them put the pieces together. And the pieces do fit, even if you don't realize you saw them until it's all over. He even goes so far as to make the suspects all plausible, formed from the suspicions of the characters themselves instead of slapping them with the red herring label.

Though few have any "Hollywood" experience, the ensemble fleshes out the film with a surprising naturalness. Perhaps the only recognizable name, Brimley stands out as the retired sheriff who doesn't know what to do with himself if he doesn't have a badge. Without being clownish, his easy repartee with Wes' secretary Peg (Carrie Morgan) provides most of the film's scant comic relief. The weakest actor, in fact, may be Dutcher himself, but then, he has also written himself as a man who tries to keep out even his own emotions. When Wes breaks, Dutcher comes through.

Brigham City will put you through an emotional wringer, whether you have faith in God or not. And that's not a bad thing. Taut, intelligent, and just plain entertaining, this little film demands attention.

It has opened haphazardly across the United States. In the area of the Fanboy Planet office, it opens December 7 at the Camera 3 Cinemas in San Jose. You can also check the film's website to see if it's opening near you. It may sneak in under a flurry of bigger-budgeted pictures, but this one will not leave you feeling empty.

What's It Worth? $8

Derek McCaw

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