If Redemption (for robbing the dead) were directed by Kelly Reichardt or produced in Spanish by some young director from Argentina or Chile, this 2010 film would be well-known, at least to cinephiles and, indeed, highly praised as an austere, theologically intense homage to Robert Bresson. But Redemption was produced by a student crew at Brigham Young University and directed by a professor of film and theater arts at that school. (This teacher, David Russell, also wrote the script.) Therefore, you have never heard of the picture and are not likely to see it -- no one reviewed the movie in the New Yorker and it didn't premiere anywhere near you. This is unfortunate because the picture, although not a masterpiece, is estimable on its own terms, handsomely filmed, and exceptionally well-acted. Furthermore, the story is strange, highly thought-provoking, and deeply troubling despite the redemptive aspects of the narration signaled, of course, by the optimistic-sounding title.
Redemption is a period piece, not exactly a Western although it inclines in that direction. In 1862, the people in a small Utah town discover that an eccentric outsider with an insane wife has been robbing graves to steal the clothing in which the dead have been buried. This causes ferocious, even, murderous indignation and the villain is arrested and tortured by having his ears "cropped" -- this means that the outer helixes of each of his ears are clipped off with a savage-looking pliers used to castrate farm animals. The magistrate tattoos on the villain's forehead the words "For Robbing the Dead" in an ornate semi-cursive script. Then, the grave-robber, a French man named Jean Baptiste is exiled to a desert island in the middle of the great Salt Lake. A deputy named Henry Heath has lost his toddler daughter to fever. He is unaware that Baptiste robbed his daughter's grave and took the baptismal dress in which the child was buried. Heath braves the disdain of the townspeople by bringing food and water to the island where Baptiste has been marooned. Several thugs go to the island and beat Baptiste who is barely surviving there, his mangled ears festering, half-mad with thirst and wearing ragged black and white prison stripes. A famous gunfighter from Wichita is hired to kill the deputy as punishment for his helping Baptiste. (This plot element is carefully set up and, then, with equal care discarded in a farcical gun battle in which both six-shooters jam and the men end up hurling the revolvers at one another.) Heath discusses the soul with Baptiste, who tells the lawman that his daughter drowned at sea and her body was never recovered. Heath takes some comfort in Baptiste's assertion that both little girls are alive as radiant spirits in heaven, a place where they don't need the clothing in which they were buried -- the subtlety in the film lies that Baptiste's reassuring words derive in part from his self-justification for robbing the graves and denuding the dead. When Heath learns that Baptiste did, in fact, rob his child's grave and he goes to the island to kill the grave-robber. Baptiste has made a primitive raft and tried to escape the island and Heath finds him dead, bobbing in the salt brine of the lake. He reports her husband's death to Marlys, Baptiste's insane wife. She demands that some of Baptiste's clothing be buried -- this act reaffirms the symbolism in the film: our bodies are merely the useless, ragged garments in which we live on this earth. Marlys asks Heath to say a few words over the burial. Heath prays: "Heal his ears. Wash those words off his brow and take away those striped clothes..." The film ends with Heath and his wife embarking on a trip to a mountain meadow that they admire as a beautiful and peaceful place, the camera showing the dead child's baptismal garment now discarded on the wood floor of the cabin, but illumined with a beam of pure white light.
Russell shoots this uncompromising material in fairly long takes, using many close-shots -- too many for my taste. Like Bresson at the end of Pickpocket, he fades to black between many of his scenes. As the movie progresses, the landscapes become progressively more beautiful -- the great Salt Lake shimmers sometimes like silver in the sun; other times, the water has a dark oily complexion. We see clouds sweeping over vast empty expanses of land, strange heaps of tortured-looking rock, the wind stirring in tall prairie grass. David Stevens who plays Jean Baptiste does a brilliant job -- he is haggard, a ghost of a man. Early in the film, we see him fixing his eye on beaver Stetson of a recently deceased man -- there is something uncanny and piercing in his gaze. Later, just before he is apprehended, we see Baptiste hoeing weeds from under a fence, a curiously pointless task, and periodically stopping to preen, imagining himself, I think, as seen in a mirror in his jaunty waistcoat and trousers stolen from a corpse. (Margot Kidder plays Marlys and she is also indelibly weird -- stirring a boiling pot full of clothing snatched from corpses and, like a witch, crooning that some of the garments "stink.") Heath, played by John Freeman, is stolid and reliable as a law man. There are memorable cameos by various minor Hollywood actors. One old man, a judge, tells a story about how he killed a young outlaw and came to regret his violence -- a very powerful scene that establishes a basis for Heath's begrudging kindness to the grave-robber. The old judge produces a letter that the man that he killed had received from his brother -- the letter is banal: there's nothing in it, but an account of weather and crops and some family gossip. But the letter proves that no one is beyond redemption and that no crime, no matter how despicable, is irredeemable in the eyes of God. Russell's discipline is remarkable -- he shoots the scenes in the village in relentless close-ups; everyone looks dirty and exhausted (there is a harrowing series of scenes involving the death of Heath's child that are hard to watch). There is no effort at scene-setting -- the town is just murky interiors and shadowy wooden corridors and the outside is green thicket with some little pointless-looking fences of the kind you might find in a film by Mizoguchi (another director who seems to have been an influence on this movie.) The documentary "making-of" film that accompanies the picture on the DVD shows beautiful snow-capped mountains in the background of the places where the town was shot -- apparently, it's somewhere near Sundance in the Wasatch Mountains. But Russell never shows you the mountains. He wants the landscape vistas to characterize the unearthly barrens around the Salt Lake and keeps his village resolutely without charm or picturesque appeal. Scenes showing rowboats approaching the moonscape of the islands (the movie was shot on Antelope and Fremont Islands in the Great Salt Lake) have the eerie beauty of Boecklin -- the oarsman is Charon and this is the Isle of the Dead.
The movie is deeply flawed in some respects. A subplot at the film's outset establishes the discovery that Baptiste is a grave-robber -- Heath has shot a man and bought a suit in which to bury the dead thug; when the dead boy's relatives come to re-inter him they find the body has been stripped and is lying naked and face-down in the grave -- for some reason, Baptiste also stole the caskets and used them, I think, as firewood. This subplot has something to do with an accusation lodged against the territorial governor accusing him of rape. The scenes suggesting the governor's bad deeds are amateurishly staged and very poorly acted -- in this part of the movie, you sense (for the only time) that this is a student film. There is some kind of Utah in-fighting here, some trace of Utah's famous skepticism about the Federal government that goes back to the old Deseret days of Brigham Young and the Saints. I couldn't follow this plot-line and it's not filmed with any conviction. It seemed odd to me that the townspeople despise the obviously mentally ill Jean Baptiste (and his crazy wife) but don't blame the unctuous undertaker who employed Baptiste as his assistant. The rhythm of the film seems a bit unsteady -- Baptiste and Heath become almost friends and, then, when Heath learns that the man robbed his child's grave all of this falls by the wayside and he goes to the island in a murderous frenzy -- this didn't seem exactly right to me, although I suppose it's plausible: it's easy to be tolerant when you haven't been the victim of a crime. The film spends a lot of time setting up a confrontation between the hired gun and Heath -- I appreciate the way Russell stages the actual gunfight as a lethal-looking comedy, but the actual initiation of the fight (the gunman tries to bushwhack Heath) commences so suddenly that we're really not aware of what is going on. But all of these observations are minor cavils -- this is an interesting film and the climax, Heath's improvised prayer, is very moving. So far as I know Russell has not made another picture -- who is going to put money into movies made by students at Brigham Young and what is the distribution network for such films? Is there a market for films about kindness, forgiveness, redemption? If Russell were allowed to make even a half-dozen films I think, that on the evidence of Redemption, he would be an important film- maker and, perhaps, would even produce one or two great American movies -- something on the Mountain Meadows massacre, perhaps, or a film about the wives of Brigham Young. But, alas, this doesn't seem likely.