Spend a year with the Mosher family.
Dir. Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher, 2009, 78 min
Some documentaries are a kick in the rear. Others are a punch in the gut. October Country is something else entirely. It had a profound, visceral effect on me, but it wasn’t a brutal jolt like, say, Dear Zachary. Instead, it emanated an atmosphere that gradually seeped into me as I watched, until by the end I finally understood what a “pall” is. This is a thoroughly dispiriting film, in the best kind of way.
Every member of the Mosher family has a special set of issues. Dotte has watched her family suffer from them for so many years. Don, her husband, can’t shake the trauma of wartime experience in Vietnam and Desert Storm. Donna, their daughter, falls into one bad relationship after another, and now watches helplessly as her teenage daughter Daneal repeats her mistakes. Daneal fights her vicious ex for custody of her daughter, while getting involved with a different scumbag. Chris, the Mosher’s foster son, warns them that he will eventually hurt them if they become too attached. They do, and he does. Don’s sister Denise looks to Wicca for solace from her heavily medicated life, which estranges her from the rest of the family. The only consistently upbeat one of the bunch is Donna’s younger daughter Desi, who numbs her days with video games.
These are people who are easy to scorn. They fall into a cycle of making the same mistake over and over, and from a position of privilege, we can criticize them for it. We can laugh at how all their names start with “D.” They seem to confirm most of the stereotypes held about the white poor in this country. But look again. These people are all very self-aware about the situations they live in. They all demonstrate a capacity for philosophical introspection that is surprising only if you confine them to that “white trash” box. And knowing this makes their lives only sadder to behold.
These people are haunted, and the film makes heavy use of ghosts as symbolism. It comes overtly, which is natural since a Pagan is involved, and subtly. When circumstances seem to trap you, the only choice may be to repeat your old errors. These people seem crucified to such a wheel of depressing Samsara. Nothing ever changes, nothing ever ends, and they know it, and trudge on regardless. Even the film itself is a cycle, following the Moshers over the course of a year, beginning and ending on Halloween.
I think I’ve seen movies that have been abjectly sadder than this one (the aforementioned Dear Zachary, for instance), but October Country stands out for offering no hope whatsoever that things will get better for these people. The film climaxes with what seems to be an opportunity for reconciliation, but which just evaporates into awkwardness. That lingering dread chains itself around you. To come back to our old friend Lars von Trier, this movie is “a stone in your shoe.”
What helps it stick is the imagery. While the movie is generally very naturalistic (it doesn’t cover up the idiosyncratic sound recording), interspersed are dreamlike sequences of stark beauty. Trick or treating. Walking through a graveyard. Sometimes action is punctuated by slow motion, which may be a bit much, but it sat just fine with me. The doc carries on the proud tradition of making ugliness look great.
Going outside the film itself for a moment, I can’t help but wonder what Donal Mosher’s story is. The co-director is another member of this family, but the movie gives no indication of this. A brief spate of research yielded no answers to me as to how he fits into them. Which is interesting, since he may be the exception that proves the rule when it comes to escaping this lifestyle. If art is a hope, then it isn’t extended to the rest of his kin.
October Country is the kind of film that many people may not like simply because it’s a downer. I remember a while ago, someone inquired as to why I would bother watching movies that do nothing but make me sad. I replied, “Because it’s great. Duh.” And, while my sensibilities have evolved a lot since then, this particular answer remains the same. This documentary is sad, but you should still watch it. Because it’s great.