Canada, 2015. Directed by Larry Kent. Starring Sarah Smyth, Jewel Staite, Missy Cross, Andrew Dunbar. 90 minutes. 8/10
Legendary Canadian independent filmmaker Larry Kent takes on extreme Christian fanaticism in his latest effort. She Who Must Burn details the conflict between Angela (Sarah Smyth), a family-planning counselor single-handedly keeping her small-town clinic open after the state pulls its funding, and the zealous Baarker family, led by Jeremiah (Shane Twerdun, who also co-wrote), who blame the clinic for the town’s woes, and whose attempts to bully Angela into submission grow increasingly violent.
Kent kicks the film off with a scene of intense brutality–the gunshot murder of a doctor at the clinic–and doesn’t let up from there. The film is unabashedly angry and political, and I couldn’t help but feel that Kent overstuffed it a bit: in addition to abortion and the Religious Right, the film also tackles misogyny, corporate exploitation of the workforce, and money in politics. These elements help build a cohesive world around the characters, but the film also tends to meander a bit. Neither does Kent deploy symbolism with any subtlety, particularly when it comes to the huge oncoming storm the county sheriff consistently reminds us is coming.
Kent has assembled a superb cast that, by and large, balances out the film’s shortcomings. This is crucial when it comes to the Baarkers, who tend to feel a bit one-dimensional and underdeveloped as characters. (In Kent and Twerdun’s defense, many of the Baarkers’ real-life counterparts often seem just as one-dimensional and underdeveloped.) Missy Cross and Andrew Dunbar steal the scenes as sister Rebecca and her husband Caleb, the former given to pronouncements full of fire and brimstone, the latter clearly troubled and reluctant, but also driven to prove himself. Twerdun’s performance is the weak link in the story; he comes off as a bit too stagey to really work for me.
Jewel Staite (of Firefly fame) shines in a comparatively brief role as Margaret, Jeremiah’s abused wife, who goes to Angela for help after her husband rapes and beats her, thus touching off most of the plot’s chain of events. Smyth also impresses, as does Jim Francis as the world-weary sheriff, reluctant to rock the boat.
She Who Must Burn isn’t horror in the conventional sense, but Kent’s frank, naturalistic style contribute to a cinematic experience more harrowing than most genre exercises. Like Kevin Smith’s Red State, it’s a scary drama made all the more horrifying by its connection to real-world events.
Originally published by Cinema Axis.