Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, May 11, 2001

In a scene from "Brigham City," Bishop Wes Clayton
(Richard Dutcher) discovers a dead woman in a shed.

Murder and Mormonism
make for effective movie

"Brigham City"
Rated PG-13
Wallace Restaurant Row

By Gary C. W. Chun

Church-related and financed feature films always address the specific needs -- and, more often than not, proselytize -- for and to the converted flock. The recent release of kingdom come/approaching apocalypse adventure films, while guaranteed solid box office numbers, usually don't crossover into larger, secular audiences.

The same kind of specialized cinema can be generally said for independent films, movies with a distinctly outsider-driven view of the world. This is where Richard Dutcher comes from, although his two films, "God's Army" and now "Brigham City," were both funded by Zion Films of Provo, Utah -- in other words, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormons, of which Dutcher himself is an active and devout church member.

Considering niche dynamics, Dutcher is an especially skilled talent. While his first film about a young missionary from Kansas (Matthew Brown) adjusting to life in sinful Los Angeles was tailor-made for a Mormon audience, it was reviewed in the L.A. Times as a "sensitive and thoughtful probe into questions of faith and the difficulties faced by those who are called to teach others."

Dutcher further explores this spiritual issue in "Brigham City," except it's in the guise of a more potentially troubling genre, namely the murder mystery. With enough word-of-mouth publicity, this film could break out of its niche market -- but, somehow, I don't see him dragging this film around to any of the splashy film festivals around the world. It just wouldn't seem prudent.

It's to Dutcher's credit that with all the hats he wears in his films, producer/director/writer/lead actor, he doesn't come off as making mere vanity projects. His role as both the sheriff and bishop of an idyllic Mormon Utah town is one he effectively underplays, letting the crises of both a horrific series of murders and the mistrust it breeds amongst the town's congregation contribute all the needed drama.

He's ably assisted by a cast that includes Brown as a fresh-faced deputy sheriff, and veteran character actor Wilford Brimley, Carrie Morgan and Tayva Patch in important supporting roles.

While Dutcher's characterizations are strictly within the genre's archetypes -- the gruff, retired guy still hanging around the office; the shrewd, wisecracking secretary; the initially unsympathetic law enforcement investigator coming in from the outside -- and he occasionally falls back on formulaic plot twists, Dutcher effectively captures the tone of the quiet, insular Mormon life that always tries to keep the troubling outside world at bay.

And the film's climax, which brings to a head the spiritual despair both Dutcher's conflicted character and his congregation face after the killings, is an unexpectedly powerful one.

"Brigham City" attempts to, and succeeds, in being a courageous movie for its Mormon audience, and it's a strong enough film to engage the rest of us.

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