The Distracted Critic visits MADISON COUNTY (2011)

MADISON COUNTY (2011)
Review by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

Madison-County

Oh, how I miss video stores. I miss popping in with an evening to kill and browsing the shelves of cover art, trying to determine from an artist’s rendering whether a film would be worth a rental or not. When the “box art” for MADISON COUNTY(2011) appeared on my Netflix Instant Watch menu, I immediately knew it was something I would’ve snagged off the VHS shelf back in the day.

The movie was written and directed by 22-year old Eric England, who starts out the film with a bold choice for an opening—a bloodied, scantily clad blonde in the bed of a blue pickup truck, her face distorted with terror. It reminds you instantly of the ending of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), giving you the subconscious impression that all the terror of that classic film has come before this. The driver of the truck brakes, and immediately the blonde climbs out and tries to escape. She calls for help to someone off-camera while the driver comes up behind her, knocks her out with a shovel, and throws her in the cab of the truck. As he drives off, the camera pans to a run-down house a few feet off the road, where a grinning old man sits on his rocker, enjoying the show as all this goes down.

Now we meet James and Will, excited about embarking on a trip once they pick up “the girls.” They’re off to Madison County to interview the author of a book about Damien Ewells, a serial killer who murdered 33 people. James has been corresponding with the author and is planning his school thesis on the case. Will is going along to take pictures. Presumably, “the girls” are going so “the boys” don’t get lonely. They arrive at Brooke’s house, and since Will is her boyfriend, he knocks. Brooke’s brother Kyle answers the door, glaring. He’s a coiled spring who we realize is ready to rip Will limb from limb. Brooke and Jenna finally come out of the house, and while they greet James and Will, Kyle climbs into James’s truck. Apparently, he’s decided he’s going with.

“Are you freakin’ kidding?” Will asks Brooke. “He hates me!”

Once within Madison County, they stop at a diner with gas pumps out front. The diner is jammed with creepy-looking townsfolk who stare at the newcomers. It’s a real TWILIGHT ZONE moment, as we realize that James’s car was the only one outside, so how did all these people get here? James manages to get directions to author David Randall’s place. After ignoring the POSTED: KEEP OUT sign and climbing over a gate at the end of the drive, they find the author’s home deserted. Confused, they try to decide what to do next. Kyle drives back to the diner, alone, to get further advice. James and Jenna stay at the house to wait while Will and Brooke set off down the path to check out the barn on the property.

With our heroes thus split up, it’s time to introduce Big Pig Head, so he can start shedding blood.

In this corner... weighing 190 pounds... Big Pig Head!

In this corner… weighing 190 pounds… Big Pig Head!

The actors do exactly as well as expected for a movie like this, with no one really standing out above the rest. They’re all relative newcomers, though Ace Marrero, who plays Kyle, has a role in England’s movie ROADSIDE (2012) while Matt Mercer, who plays Will, is appearing in England’s upcoming CONTRACTED (2013). Colley Bailey, who plays James, appeared in last year’s DONNER PASS. The girls, Joanna Sotomura as Brooke and Natalie Scheetz as Jenna are making their first feature film appearance.

Eric England’s direction is pretty advanced for a young person making his first feature film. He’s creative and chooses interesting shots, at one point framing the car in a bright red dust mote, sort of like a bull’s eye. At another point, Kyle is glaring at Will and a flash of light looks like a knife in Kyle’s hand. Possibly most interesting of all is how, except for one brief scene, he films the entire movie in broad daylight. Artistically, Eric might be a director to keep an eye on, especially with the two more films already on the way, ROADSIDE and CONTRACTED. As far as his writing, though, MADISON COUNTY ends up losing points.

Director Eric England is a newcomer to watch. Writer Eric England... he can only get better from here.

Director Eric England is a newcomer to watch. Writer Eric England… he can only get better from here.

There are at least three moments in the film where minor characters assure James, and therefore us, that “he’ll understand before it’s all over.” This is a point that’s made and re-made throughout the first three quarters of the movie, usually after a weird swerve in the plot that leaves us scratching our heads. When it’s all said and done, though, there are no answers to be found. There is no final revelation that makes the movie come together in a flash of understanding. The credits roll abruptly and leave us wondering what in the hell was going on, which really drained my enjoyment of the film.

It’s not that I don’t like movies that leave us with unanswered questions. I recently reviewed LOVELY MOLLY, which left more than a few. In that film, though, Eduardo Sanchez never promised that we would understand everything. In MADISON COUNTY, England goes out of his way to foreshadow that answers will be coming, but then he ignores these promises and leaves us feeling cheated. I’m going to chalk it up to a rookie mistake and hunt down ROADSIDE as soon as I can, to see if this was a fluke. In the end, though, I find it difficult to recommend MADISON COUNTY overall.

I give MADISON COUNTY one and a half stars, with no timeouts.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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2 Responses to “The Distracted Critic visits MADISON COUNTY (2011)”

  1. Hey Paul,

    I appreciate you taking the time to give our film a shot, especially writing a review. Means a lot to us!

    Thanks for being observant to a few key things, it’s nice to see when people are paying attention.

    For us it was about presenting a film as a calling card for us as film makers and we were excited about having the rare liberty of making the kind of film we wanted, without any creative things forced on us, so it’s great to hear you could find value in some of those things.

    Where you found weakness, I’m glad you are open and interested in what comes next and did your homework to look into it.

    Roadside isn’t available yet, we are going to be premiering it in LA in march, then Arkansas, NY, and more to follow. Stay tuned and current by visiting our Facebook page for the film if you like! If you haven’t yet come across our trailer, it is here: http://youtu.be/eIG94E5_sk4

    Excited for you to see what we did with it!

    Cheers–
    Ace

  2. Paul McMahon Says:

    Thanks for the great comments! It’s nice to hear my efforts are appreciated, and I thank you for taking the time to let me know that.

    The trailer for ROADSIDE looks freaking amazing and I can’t wait to check it out. I’ll be watching for it to show up around central New England, and at the latest will check it out as soon as it hits DVD.

    Best of luck for the future!

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