Friday, March 14, 2014

Local Legends, The Tough Sell Outside The Culture: Escanaba In Da Moonlight

The Good: The acting is fine, Captures the U.P. culture well?
The Bad: Weird in an awkward way, Bland plot, Obvious character arc.
The Basics: After years, I take in Escanaba In Da Moonlight and discover a Michigan movie classic that plays poorly to my New York sensibility.

Ever since I moved to Michigan, my wife has tried to get me to watch Escanaba In Da Moonlight with her. After watching The Newsroom (season two is reviewed here!) with Jeff Daniels, she redoubled her efforts given how she saw how much I liked Jeff Daniels’s performance in that show. Escanaba In Da Moonlight is an indie film that is very much a work of Jeff Daniels. Daniels wrote the play upon which the film was based, then adapted the screenplay and directed Escanaba In Da Moonlight. Jeff Daniels is also the lead star of Escanaba In Da Moonlight.

It bears noting that I am from upstate New York originally. I’ve never lived in a big city and I’m a big fan of rural life (most of it anyway). Escanaba In Da Moonlight is a distinctly rural Michigan movie. Set in the Upper Penninsula where life, apparently, is very much hunter-oriented, with little in the way of technology or amenities, Escanaba In Da Moonlight hinges on the viewer’s ability to accept and appreciate U.P. culture. The story and character development all hinges on the importance of men being men, kids killing animals through hunting and accepting weirdness unseen in daily life since Twin Peaks (reviewed here!).

Rueben Soady is forty-three years old and as hunting season begins, he leaves his wife to go north with his father, Albert, and disturbingly slow brother Remnar. At their camping lodge north of Escanaba, Albert and Remnar work to distance themselves from Rueben, fearing that he is cursed when it comes to shooting a buck. Rueben is on the cusp of being the oldest Soady man to not shoot a buck and he is determined to beat the curse. While they are out during the day, flashing lights appear and in their wake there is the incoherent Jimmer Negamenee sitting on their roof. Drinking a foul protein-based concoction made by Rueben’s wife, the quartet hunkers down to prepare to hunt a buck that will keep them fed for a year.

Soon, though, they are visited by Ranger Tom (from Detroit) and the weirdness escalates. Rueben has waking dreams, sees flashing lights and ends up outside in the middle of the night. Tom and Jimmer become possessed, speaking in unnaturally deep voices and fearing they are inhabited by dark forces beyond their control. But through the harrowing night, Rueben gets the strength to go out and hunt the buck that will break the curse and make him a man in his family’s eyes.

Rueben Soady is a strangely bland protagonist. The others around him are quite a bit more active (manic, even) while he slouches through the attempt to break his curse. Escanaba In Da Moonlight makes no real sense – not the supernatural stuff, that’s pleasantly weird, much like Twin Peaks - on the character front to anyone who is not a Upper. Why does Rueben Soady care so much about the alleged curse and his family’s esteem? He’s a forty-three year-old man who has a hot wife and two children of his own; why does he care about the ritual of hunting the buck even? Escanaba In Da Moonlight is not Moby Dick; Rueben pursues the buck without passion or obsession and the motivations on him seem largely external instead of internally-motivated.

Daniels is supported by Harve Presnell, Joey Albright, and Wayne David Parker (who might well be a perfect stand-in for Russ Tamblyn) and they play their parts well. They also play off one another fine, though their characters are monolithic in the way they embody the Upper culture, as opposed to having distinctive characters independent of their culture.

Jeff Daniels directs Escanaba In Da Moonlight well, though there is a decidedly low-budget quality to it. The supernatural is represented by bright lights, shakes that look like they were mimicked from later seasons of The X-Files and Star Trek-style special effects. The story is not presented in a particularly compelling way.

Ultimately, Escanaba In Da Moonlight is locally relevant, but hard to sit through even once . . . even for those of us who have been waiting years to watch it.

For other indie films set mostly outside, check out my reviews of:
The Wait
Assisted Fishing
The Way


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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