September Dawn

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Historical drama isn't known to be "gonzo," but this bizarre and erratically violent pseudo Western goes balls to the walls, literally. About midway through, there's a montage of brutal punishments meted out by Mormons against heretics, including a rather graphic shot of testicles getting nailed to a barn door.

Based on the real-life tragedy of the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre in Utah, the film is bogged down by a soggy romance, several fruitless subplots and at times is about as convincing a historical document as an episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

Director Christopher Cain knows his saddles, having helmed Young Guns, but here he shoots scenes with all the grace of a giraffe on a bike, belaboring even the simplest moments. Nearly every shot lands as chunkily as Frankenstein's boots, thus burying a potentially fascinating story under visual clichés and heavy-handed monologues — most of which are bellowed by a hammy Jon Voight. Voight is a sinister bishop who deeply distrusts the wagon train of Arkansas cattlemen who're passing through his land en route to California. These humble Christian wanderers are cast in waves of holy light, though they commit unspeakable transgressions such as breeding race horses and allowing some women (welcome back Lolita Davidovitch) to wear pants. Meanwhile, the Mormons sulk about, spouting scripture and prophecies while riding dark horses in dark cloaks and pointy hats, which make them look like Tolkienesque Ring Wraiths. Despite the starry-eyed passions of ill-fated lovers, paranoia wins and slaughter ensues, as the bloodthirsty Mormons and native allies swarm the cattlemen's camp.

If this sounds like vicious anti-Mormon propaganda, well it's technically factual — but this flick sure won't be a favorite on Mitt Romney's campaign bus. Though it probably won't sooth angry LDS defenders, there are clearly other agendas here. The real target is bigotry and fundamentalism and extremism.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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