Anyone who ever took an acting class, particularly during a summer program or high school elective, is probably familiar with Edgar Lee Masters’ The Spoon River Anthology. The 1915 project is a collection of first-person poems that when put together, paint a deep and sad portrait of the humans that make up a small town. Budding young thespians have, for generations, been assigned a page or two as a monologue. Perhaps one of those young would-be actors was Scott A. Meehan, a writer/director who made his only (thus far) film with 2000’s The Mystery of Spoon River.
Quick Plot: Emma Masters is a corporate attorney trying her darndest to work off her small town history in big city Chicago. Her rhythm of angry phone calls and people flinching at her power is disrupted when her younger sister calls in need of some legal assistance.
Hopping in her sleek convertible, Emma makes her way back to Spoon River to help her brother-in-law/ex-boyfriend Jesse get out of a confusing murder charge. Jesse was out raccoon hunting one night with his pal Skeeter (because any movie with a bumpkin better have a Skeeter) when they were spooked by some kind of ghostly activity. A gunshot went off, and the police eventually discovered the fatally shot body of a game warden who happened to be black.
Enter a Gail Weathers-y reporter to misinterpret the term “coon hunting” and set off a chain of drama in the otherwise quiet hamlet. Rumors of a racially motivated murder bring in a skeevy team of FBI agents, struggling politicians looking to grab some good PR, and sad little chapter of the KKK. Stuck in the mess is Emma as she tries to save Jesse by digging up the dark secrets of Spoon River.
How to describe The Mystery of Spoon River...
Let’s say you have a friend--or maybe carpool mate- who really likes stand-up comedy. He’s not the funniest guy in your circle or even your Buick, but his heart fully belongs to the art form so much that one day he announces he has rented a theater and will perform an hour-long set. He hasn’t had much or any professional practice, but you know that he’s been rehearsing with a hairbrush microphone in front of his bedroom mirror for years.
You go to the show because all of the good excuses for not going were already taken by the rest of the carpool team. The programs are printed on good quality thick paper stock. The ushers are polite even if they have no idea what they’re seating you for. The chairs are more comfortable than you’d expect. The lighting is good. The sound design isn’t terribly muddled. The production, in a word, is professional...ish.
That’s essentially The Mystery of Spoon River. The lead actors are capable enough, while the ones who show up for a scene or two are, well, less so. The location is rather beautiful and feeds perfectly into the atmosphere of this middle-of-nowhere town rotting away from within.
But you know, the movie...
Meehan clearly had ambitions. He wanted to explore the idea of a town with secrets eating away at itself, which is great in theory but bad when executed without skill. There’s so much going on between the ill-defined murder, random cemetery loiterer, political drama, greasy FBI witch hunt, and occasional ghost sightings. Early on, we’re introduced to a circle of powerful men who run the finances of Spoon River. 80 minutes later, they come back into play via a 50 year old anecdote told by another character. Meehan has potential in how he tries to lay out Spoon River’s complicated past, but it’s clearly far more interesting and clear to him than it ever comes across to its audience.
From its rotting cemeteries to autumn leaves, the look of The Mystery of Spoon River is quite striking and goes a long way in establishing the titular town
...a town where a lot is going on but none of it seems very interesting
The War of 1812 was so long ago
The word “everything” means the universe of all things
You can’t stir an empty pot and expect to end up with mashed potatoes (unless it’s a really awesome bewitched pot)
I have a feeling that the only audience that would actually care about or enjoy The Mystery of Spoon River is that same population of once-young-wannabe-acting students who skimmed through Masters’ poems long ago. It’s too light to be a horror film, too dark to be your grandmother’s mystery, too good to be so-bad-it’s-good, too spoon to be fork, and so on. I enjoyed the film for its earnestness, and at less than 90 minutes on Netflix Instant, it won’t ruin your life if you take the gamble. But I have a hard time thinking of who else might get something out of this one.