Dan's Review: Redemption

Dan's Review: Redemption

A Utah legend comes to life.

Rated PG for violence and some language.

Starring John Freeman, David Stevens, Margot Kidder, Barry Corbin, Jon Gries, Rance Howard, Edward Herrmann, Larry Thomas, Sean Bott, Jodi Russell, Nathan Stevens, Tom Huntin.

Written and directed by Tom Russell.



Local Utah productions are sometimes worthy efforts and ofttimes very lame (Unitards, anyone?). Some are cute, some are inventive while many are outright embarrassing. Whenever I discover that a new film was produced locally, I often brace myself for substandard acting, script writing or at the very least, low production value. That said, I gave Redemption, a local production about a dark part of Utah's early pioneer history a fighting chance.

The story of Redemption draws upon some very real incidents surrounding Jean Baptiste, a Frenchman who was accused of stealing from several Salt Lake City Cemetery graves in 1862. The story is told though the experience of police officer Henry Heath (John Freeman), who, along with his wife Lucille (Robyn Adamson) mourn the recent loss of their little girl to disease. Baptiste (David Stevens) is a gravedigger and is caught red-handed with several items of clothing taken from burial sites. Leading up to the discovery of the stolen items, the film dedicates a lot of time to the events that lead up to Baptiste's arrest, including the attack on Utah's territorial governor (Edward Hermann) that led to the killing of one of his assailants by Heath, which led to the grave site where the assailant's clothing was taken.

After Baptiste is caught, Judge Smith (Barry Corbin) banishes him to Antelope Island, but not before jailers are allowed to mangle his ears and tattoo his forehead with the words "for robbing of the dead." Baptiste's mentally unstable wife Marlys (Margot Kidder) is left to fend for herself, as Heath is left to keep tabs on the exiled prisoner.

Heath, bitter with disgust for Baptiste, eventually begins to feel compassion for him as he deals with guilt over all the men he's killed, coupled with anguish he feels over the loss of his daughter. As Heath shows more compassion for Baptiste by bringing him supplies and helping Marlys, the people of Salt Lake City begin to resent the policeman for showing any kind of sympathy for the Wasatch Front's biggest pariah. Some townsfolk go so far as to hire hit man Tom Sutter (John Gries) to take out Heath and Baptiste (unsuccessfully).

In the end, Heath seeks for redemption of his soul by trying to save Baptiste.

First, let me assure most people that Redemption is better than most local productions on many levels. It is beautifully shot, making hostile, barren landscapes like Antelope Island seem compelling. The script isn't bad, but the story spends a lot of time on peripheral events, which makes the film drag on a little, especially in the beginning. Did we really need to know about Baptiste's slight connection to the attack on the territorial governor?

Speaking of the story, while writer/director Thomas Russell goes into such intricate detail on the seemingly unimportant events surrounding Baptiste, it's odd that he chose to take great liberties with his actual fate, not to mention the fervor over Baptiste as fueled by Brigham Young (legend and some historical accounts say he was the one suggested that death was too good for him, but that's up for some historical debate). The problem is that almost nothing is known about Baptiste's real fate, since local media and legal scribes of the day went to great lengths to omit everything from the record about what really happened to the accused grave robber. In truth, there is no record that Baptiste ever had a trial, a sentence or any kind of banishment, other then the legendary label of the "Ghoul of Great Salt Lake."

A story of Redemption is perhaps more compelling and palatable for Utahns who look upon their ancestors as always being noble, compassionate and just, even toward people accused of such horrendous things. Maybe that's why Russell took Redemption toward the feel-good result, but I smell more of a lynch mob cover up in the reality of Baptiste's fate, which leaves a lot to the imagination.

We may never know.

The casting and acting performances of Redemption are equally puzzling. It's odd that less-than-obscure actors like Hermann and Gries signed on to barely-there cameos in a local Utah production. Seriously...both men are on screen for less that 15 seconds combined, by my fuzzy math - at least it seemed that way. Maybe it's because they were already in town during production, and have been known to appear in so many other Utah-based productions, they just couln't say no. The local and lesser-known actors all do fine jobs (Freeman and Adamson), but are slightly contrasted with more seasoned heavyweights like Margot Kidder and Barry Corbin. Corbin's performance outshines just about everyone as a man who mentors Heath and deals with his own feelings about the people he's killed.

So, Redemption has some things going for it, but it's also a film that is equally  frustrating. It's a worthy attempt for a local production, but perhaps not quite ready for wide release.

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