Mac is a man who may love thy neighbor, but thy neighbors certainly don’t love him back. The animus stems from the fact that Mac works as a Deputy Sheriff in a desolate and depressed but devoutly religious mining town where his girlfriend Angela (with whom he lives “out of wedlock”) is an abortion counselor who runs a clinic out of their home. Mac leaves for work everyday to protesters on his lawn calling him and his wife “killers” and “murderers” while baby dolls covered in blood hang from his tree.
Decidedly anti pro-choice is town Pastor Jeremiah Baarker. His grip over the town is vice-like, and he insists on all pregnancies being carried through to term, even if it results in the death of the mother, the child or both.
After Jeremiah’s brother Caleb’s wife Rebecca births a stillborn child, Jeremiah interprets it as a sign from God to make a child of his own. When his wife Margaret shows reticence, the good pastor forcibly has his way with her. And when Margaret, post-coitus, reveals that she’s on the pill, Jeremiah beats the ever-living shit out of her.
Margaret runs to Angela, having made the decision to leave Jeremiah for good. Angela arranges for Margaret to find sanctuary, but as Margaret sits in the passenger seat of a van, hopefully heading toward greener pastures, she’s unaware that brother-in-law Caleb has witnessed the exodus.
The protesters at Mac’s house soon become more aggressive. They descend upon Angela and start throwing eggs, and one hits her in the face. She takes a bat to the one who cast the offending ovum, but before things get too out of hand, the pastor steps in and, under the guise of civility, asks to come inside to speak. However, once in the house, his calm demeanor gives way to quiet menace as he demands to know the address of where his wife is. Rebecca and Caleb join in and compound the threat, even going as far as blaming Angela for bringing the wrath of God upon the town. Nonetheless, Angela remains unbowed.
The final act of She Who Must Burn is the veritable definition of harrowing. It is a masterfully-directed piece of cinema, so bone-chilling that this reviewer is still reeling. It calls to mind (but does not emulate) films as diverse as Straw Dogs, Kill List, Martyrs and Take Shelter. Furthermore, it takes an artistic device, pathetic fallacy, that is utilized so often and so hamfistedly that it has practically become cliché, and reclaims it to great effect.
She Who Must Burn (screening this weekend as part of Blood in the Snow) can hardly be described as nuanced nor subtle. There is absolutely zero doubt as to which side of the political spectrum 82-year-old (!) writer/director Larry Kent resides. While Pastor Baarker and his kin may at times come of as religious nutjob cartoon characters, there’s no arguing that there are people out there like that (for evidence, just Google “Westboro Baptist Church”).
With political and religious enmity currently at an uncomfortably elevated level, with people using perceived differences to do and say unspeakably horrific things, with religion and ethnicity being used as a straw man fallacy for the most extreme sorts of polarization and hatred, Kent’s film is extremely relevant. Kent is one octogenarian who is not softening with age. He’s mad as hell, and he uses the medium of film to vent that rage. With She Who Must Burn, Kent is implying an allegiance with the late and lamented Clash singer Joe Strummer. He’s implying that we can no longer, as a species, as a race, look blindly toward a certain man in the sky, but rather, to paraphrase Strummer, look to our sisters and brothers instead and put humanity back into the ring. God help us if we don’t.
**** (out of five)