October 16, 2002 -- "Brigham City" is a very unusual murder mystery set in a small town in Utah. The basic story isn't all that unusual, but some of the circumstances of the story, like the fact that the Sheriff investigating the case is a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is certainly unusual, if not unprecedented, in movies. The fact that this low-budget independent film, with lots of religious overtones, happens to be a well-made film is also unusual.
Religious films have been on the upswing in recent years with the success of "The Omega Code" among others, but many religious films are heavy on religion and light on entertainment. Many are not well-scripted or directed. "Brigham City" is both well-scripted and well-directed. It is well-acted too, by a cast with only one star, the venerable Wilford Brimley ("The Firm" and medical commercials on TV), who plays Stu, a crotchety old ex-sheriff. The real star of the film is Richard Dutcher ("God's Army") who not only wrote the screenplay and produced the film, but directs it and stars in it too. During the director's commentary on the DVD, he notes that he was often exhausted during the project. Small wonder.
Shot in several small towns in Utah, the film features some beautiful fall colors, including one of the opening scenes, when the county sheriff, Wes Clayton (Dutcher), and his deputy, Terry (played by Matthew A. Brown of "God's Army") discover the body of a murdered woman in a barn outside of town. Clayton moves fast to turn the investigation over to the FBI and to keep the whole thing quiet in town. "It's got nothing to do with us," he says. When another murder victim turns up in the middle of town. FBI agent Meredith (played by Tayva Patch) tells Clayton, "Congratulations, you have a serial killer in town." Meredith suspects there are earlier murders that were thought to be mere runaways.
Dutcher, still grieving over the loss of his wife and child in an auto accident, doesn't want to believe a monstrous evil has taken hold in his town. Stu tells him, "Nothing attracts a serpent like paradise." Clayton deputizes Stu and sets out to solve the murder his own way, including a house-to-house search of the entire town when another young woman goes missing. Clayton tells the search volunteers to pair up "like in the old days" referring to a time when they paired up with their missionary partners. Another plan involves getting fingerprints off the bottles from a local tavern. The whole town is on edge as the killing continues and Clayton and the FBI have few clues to go on. When all else fails, the small band of investigators turns to prayer.
The film does a good job of keeping the killer's identity a secret. There are some effective red herrings and one very nice misdirection scene. Despite the low-key nature of the film, it has its share of suspense. There are some good characters in the film, especially Peg, the sheriff's secretary (played by Carrie Morgan of the TV miniseries, "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town"). Dutcher, Brown and Brimley are also effective (Brimley's brother, Sterling Brimley, plays the town's mayor). Although the film deals with violent murders, it is not graphic in nature. It is rated PG-13.
Unlike just about every other murder mystery, the film gets into spirituality. There are several worship scenes and a Sunday school scene. The sheriff is shown praying several times. The entire investigative team has a group prayer. The climax of the film is a religious scene, a crisis of faith, if you will. In some ways this is a very dark film, filled with tragedy and missed opportunities, but it is also about the healing power of forgiveness and how faith helps those in need. In one scene the sheriff urges one of his flock to stop calling him bishop because he is on duty, investigating a murder case. The dual nature of his role in the community is highlighted when one woman seeks spiritual counseling of him in the sheriff's office. The Mormon church does not allow filming inside a functioning church, so the church scenes were filmed inside a former church that had been sold to a city government, according to the director's commentary on the DVD. The director's commentary track is loaded with information on how Dutcher managed to make a good film with less than a $1 million budget. This is a very creative bit of independent filmmaking. It rates a B.
The DVD is in a 1.78:1 format which preserves the film's original aspect ratio. The colors are bright and the image is good throughout nearly the whole film. Available sound tracks include Dolby (tm) 2.0 and 5.1 and a director's commentary tract. Dutcher talks about how he got the idea for the script in July and started filming in October. He got the idea while driving to California to work on the DVD for "God's Army." The one-sided dual-layered disk also has a theatrical trailer, subtitles and captions in English along with Spanish subtitles. There is also text information on the cast and crew.
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