It feels odd to describe a near-DIY documentary about the shifting familial values and lingering personal demons of Middle America as nothing more than an unequivocal visual triumph, but there’s a distinctively, and hauntingly, dehumanizing quality about the graphic approach of October Country. Essentially a video collaboration between photographer Donal Mosher and director Michael Palmieri documenting one eventfully pensive year among the former’s parents and siblings, the film organizes intimate interviews, baroquely autumnal landscapes, and still-life shots of domestic bibelots into a narrative that follows the tortured arhythms of the Mosher clan with artful grace. The result is undeniably a beautiful object, but it is an object: Embracing the visual serenity requires a challenging emotional cost that might be the film’s most intriguing aspect.
It’s not quite that the cozily bombinating fluorescence of the dim interiors or the stale, burnt, leafy look of the plein air footage disrespects the down-home speech that forms the movie’s jagged story; one scene, in fact, quite incisively juxtaposes the glittering, pyro-patriotic carnage of fireworks against a pained monologue from the introspective patriarch Don about serving in the thick of Vietnam and feeling wholly disassociated from homeland pride. But even here, cursorily correlating controlled, recreational violence and institutionalized, political violence, the filmmakers seem uninterested in teasing out subtle irony from their metaphors, content instead to let their lens glaze over in the presence of majesty-dripping imagery.
When the Moshers’ sunken, plaintive visages are on screen, the painterly focus on appearances proves far more hypnotic. Ensconced in the pastoral anonymity of upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley, the Mosher family communicates its fears in verbal patterns akin to characters in Faulkner’s more fatalistic sketches. In addition to the shell-shocked veteran, there’s a chain-smoking grandmother; a molested daughter and battered wife angling tearfully for custody of her illegitimate child; a quirky, possibly mentally ill, ghost-hunting aunt who’s been virtually ostracized from her bloodline; and even a drug-dealing, shoplifting foster teen who drifts in and out of the household, occasionally confusing the Moshers’ emotional baggage for his own. The youngest of the Mosher children, the eight-year-old Desi, proclaims herself the smartest of her brood as she licks errant chocolate ice cream off the corner of her pudgy cheek. “Okay, they’re all retarded compared to me,” she says, her face wetly iridescent.
Through these colloquial, medium-wide, milieu-insinuating interviews, the directors examine how each family member’s fractured emotional aura influences their visual space, and every split-pea green sweater and flaming blue computer screen reflection seems sharpened with regret and exhausted frustration. But the over-conscious cinematography also distracts from the big issue “poster child” content—every Mosher seems designed to represent another tediously canonical, albeit still fecund, manifestation of blue-collar heartache—and rather than penetrating and unpacking each stereotype in their midst, the directors shy away to the point of languid, clinical curiosity.
This is a film ostensibly about working-class American issues but utterly lacking the concern for triumph or failure that would evince social relevance. After hearing of the aforementioned custody battle, we anticipate a lengthy plot thread devoted to observing the family’s David/Goliath battle with an impartial legal system, but we’re instead abruptly and perfunctorily informed toward the feature’s close that the child was surrendered to its wife-beating father. Palmieri and Mosher deaden and color-coordinate the quotidian struggle in their content until it exists only as a distant abstract; their characters’ bountiful tears teach us very little about their human sources, acting more as another textured watercolor with which to picturesquely populate the screen. What’s revealed as the film progresses, however, is how surprisingly fulfilling emotional data can be when sublimated and read as a series of aesthetic gestures.
In that sense, October Country is the near cousin of Jonathan Caouette’s iMovie masterpiece Tarnation, which also wrought a kind of beauty from the ugliness of personal disaster. But rather than splitting himself open, scooping out the pulp, and trying to shape it into something palatable (as Caouette did), Donal Mosher withdraws from the equation and uses a camera to mediate between himself and his screwy kin. The film isn’t dishonest or condescending as a result, but it feels unmistakably weary of its burden, and this provokes it to concentrate on seeing above all else. Observing it felt a bit like watching, and attempting to help, a friend through an emotional breakdown, and eventually becoming so fatigued by the histrionics on display that I found myself entranced by the way the light attractively reflected across her tear-slicked face. October Country is more illuminated than illuminating, but Palmieri and Mosher intrepidly challenge us to consider why we automatically consider the latter more valuable.