She Who Must Burn literally opens with a bang – the cold-blooded murder of a doctor who provides abortions. Larry Kent’s new film, now available on Cable VOD, Digital HD, and DVD, then shocks again by slowing to a leisurely pace that carries a grueling, unrelieved tension.
Somewhere in rural farm and energy country, a young healthcare counselor (Sarah Smyth of Cedar Cove and 50/50) lives with her sheriff’s-deputy boyfriend Mac (Andrew Moxham), “in sin” as the religious locals describe it. Angela runs a clinic that has just lost its funding, but as the only source of health and medical advice for the local folks, especially the women, she resolves to continue operating it somehow.
Meanwhile, the local parson’s sister Rebecca (Missy Cross), a religious fanatic who speaks in tongues, loses a baby to stillbirth, and we learn that there have been a number of child deaths in the area. Though environmental pollution is the putative cause, the locals begin to blame Angela’s cursed secular-humanist presence. It’s the last straw when Angela helps the wife (Jewel Staite of Firefly) of the local parson, Jeremiah (Shane Twerdun), get to an out-of-town shelter after he rapes and beats her because she’s not amenable when he decides the Lord wants them to have a child.
Slowly and inexorably, the trio of Jeremiah, Rebecca, and Rebecca’s cowardly husband Caleb (Andrew Dunbar) zero in on Angela, her home, and her boyfriend. Along the way, a grisly murder is committed, but the gruff sheriff (Jim Francis), cowed by the power of the trio and the rabidly anti-abortion demonstrators who arrive to picket wherever Jeremiah commands, can only warn repeatedly that a big storm is coming.
Cutaways to windy skies keep the hackneyed storm symbolism going as the story threatens to peter out. There’s an unexpected payoff when the storm finally does arrive, but it’s hard to pick out a message, or any moral or artistic satisfaction, from the conclusion. In terms of bloody deaths, She Who Must Burn is positively Shakespearean; in imagery, biblical; in narrative, frustrating. Hints of remorse on Jeremiah’s part lead nowhere. Neither good nor evil triumphs; heroism and murder receive equally dark rewards. If Kent means to express a nihilistic worldview, he succeeds. If he’s condemning religious fanaticism, his avatars are too extreme to be effective.
Twerdun’s Jeremiah can be effectively creepy. But there’s a hollowness in Cross’s depiction of Rebecca, when she’s not speaking in tongues, anyway, and that emptiness reflects the movie’s overall feel. Admittedly Rebecca may be a tough character to nail because of her cartoonish nuttiness. But it loosens the effectively of her nefarious trio’s off-the-rails arc.
Staite, Moxham, and Dunbar are good in their supporting roles. But it’s Smyth’s assured, tightly controlled performance that holds this inadequately moored film together. Original gospel-Americana songs performed by The Wonder Horsemen lend able assistance. The windy atmosphere draws us in as the story creeps along like a slouch towards apocalypse. In the end, though, we’re left to wonder what the point was.