Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Heaven Is a Place On Earth (guarded by Fred Durst)

Between Tooth and Nail  and 9 Dead, it seems like I’ve been watching a fair share of mediocre to terrible direct-to-Instant Watch thrillers built on promising premises. Population 436, a 2005 film about a middle American hamlet and its cheerfully grim secrets, improves upon this trend with an intriguing and solid enough execution.
Quick Plot: Census taker Steve Kady (the always reliable when curly haired Jeremy Sisto) busts his tire just outside of Rockwell Falls, a small town dubbed by its 436 residents as “the most perfect place on earth.” Any grammar Nazi with an ear for redundancy knows better than to trust unnecessary adjectives, and sure enough, it doesn’t take Steve long to discover something fishy: for the past 100 years, Rockwell Falls has maintained its population count. 

Is it something in the water? Too much Shirley Jackson in the library? Whatever the problem, you can get a research montage that it won’t end well.

Population 436 is a neat little mystery, a Twilight Zone throwback that calls to mind the Jason Robards ruled underworld in A Boy and His Dog  crossed with the simpler bleakness of The Lottery. While director Michelle Maxwell MacLaren (who would go on to helm some of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad's best episodes only to raise and crush my hopes when she left the big screen Wonder Woman film) doesn’t pull too many surprises once the plot gets rolling, the story is solidly suspenseful to keep us interested for the expected 90 minute running time. More importantly, little touches--such as the Stepford-ish costume design and all-out good folksy charm of its performers--work fairly seamlessly to pull the whole film together.

There's no earth-shattering shocks or philosophy-changing revelations, but this is a film that makes good on its mystery with competent storytelling, compelling characters, and a few 'whoah!' moments that make the trip worth taking.

High Points
Sisto’s character doesn’t really get the arc we’d like to see, but the actor works hard to ground the story in something we can relate to and care for
The first major horror element isn’t totally surprising, but the moment is staged with such fantastic tension and macabre humor that it truly shocks and takes the film into a whole new direction
Low Points
While I appreciate its bleakness, the ending ultimately feels somewhat empty
Lessons Learned
Any town guarded by Deputy Fred Durst is not a place to be trusted

Talkin’ Crazy is the only fever that matters

If you fear that everybody in town is out to get you, perhaps you should avoid macking on the one friend you have’s intended
Between Hannibal Lector and Rockwell Falls, census taking appears to be a career fraught with hazards

Stray Observation
This marks Jeremy Sisto’s second genre film to lead him to a makeshift graveard of the stolen cars of murdered visitors. I’m sure there’s some sort of Da Vinci Code-like significance to that.
Considering the crap I tend to watch, Population 436 is a tasty little treat. Though it never really ascends from Instant Watch caliber, this is a well-told mystery that fares better than your average mid-to-no budget thriller. Worth your full attention, just not your weekly allowance. If my research is to be trusted, the DVD is bare, save for what sounds like a wisely vetoed alternate ending. Stream one day when you’re in the mood for something lightly dark, like a an X-Files episode served with skim milk.


  1. Do we have the same instant queue? A lot of the films you have been reviewing are in my instant queue as well. Coincidence? I'm not so sure....

  2. Hmmmmmm...perhaps it stems from the fact that so many of the ones I put on that list are those that I'm constantly beaten over the head with via "You Might Also Like" recommendations. We're both apparently quite weak in the fact of peer pressure.

  3. Oh wow, I would have not expected a decent review for this one, though I do really enjoy me some curly haired Sisto myself! Some key notes: That town in the movie, is where I live now. Also, with Durst as a sheriff, I would fully expect some signature lyrics used as lines, delivered in a tongue in check manor.

  4. I remembered seeing this way back and I can't remember too much of it, but it's definitely an above average flick. Well worth a watch, anyway.

  5. Matt-I swear you wrote your comment in disappearing/reappearing ink. Anyway, by "that town," do you mean Rockwell Falls, the most perfect place on earth, or a place not with corn but where all the kids dress like they're Amish?

    Atroxion, agreed.

  6. Perfect town, no crime, little to no "color" and lots of GOD!!! Oh and there are Amish all over the place out here (I see 'em at Wal-Mart!), so I guess both is my answer.

  7. I love that the Amish shop at Wal-Mart. It seems so wrong, and yet somehow, a tad too right...

  8. I like this movie, too. I figured I was alone! Great review.