“Heart of the Beholder” is to religious extremists what “Death Wish” was to muggers. Instead of grieving vigilante Chuck Bronson, you get hardworking video storeowner Mike Howard (Matt Letscher). Meanwhile, substitute Missouri-based, Bible-thumping terrorists for Big Apple muggers, and you’ve got a button-pushing melodrama pitting home video heathens against hell-fighting Holy Rollers.
It’s evident that filmmaker Ken Tipton has no love lost on Citizens For Decency, the religious watchdog group that allegedly targeted his St. Louis based video store chain during the early eighties. According to the film’s web site, Tipton raised CFD’s censorship-happy hackles by carrying Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” and other controversial movie titles on his shelves. Tempers escalated, sides were taken, and Tipton found himself enmeshed in boycotts, court battles, depression – and ultimately, an ironic form of redemption.
When the dust settled, this one-time video retailer directed “Eye of the Beholder,” a live-action dramatization that immortalizes his personal story while also depicting the dangerous, white-hot friction that often develops when opposing ideologies rub together.
Mike and Diane Howard are the film’s heroes, initially shown building their video franchise from the ground up. But while husband and wife sort through inventory, rent out tapes, and promote their new business, a holy storm blows through the doors of Video Library. Right-wing fanatics denounce Howard for stocking “Splash,” citing its human-mermaid couplings as unholy “b********y.” The list grows. “Taxi Driver,” “Agnes of God,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Mr. Mom” are protested before “Last Temptation” emerges and ignites a firestorm of rabid, self-righteous fury.
There’s a T.V. Movie of the Week flavor to Tipton’s film, but production qualities run high compared to most indies. As Howard endures the cumulative pressure of death threats to his child, Child Protection Service visits instigated by CFD allegations, and unfounded rumors that he’s dabbling in organized crime, we feel his pain. And when he slips into booze-induced hallucinations, “Heart of the Beholder” goes deeper into the man’s torment than we have any right to expect.
There’s a daring comedic sequence involving cathartic paintball battles between Howard and his born again tormentors, but its light tone feels out-of-place next to the downward spiral that has come before. And a tawdry scene in which Howard’s wife (Sarah Brown) poses as a prostitute to frame a crooked politician feels unlikely and contrived, especially in a film supposedly based on true incidents.
Interesting actors populate the piece, including Tony “Candyman” Todd as rock legend and Video Library customer Chuck Berry. Kudos are also deserved by John Dye as a doughy, skirt-chasing Prosecuting Attorney and Silas Weir Mitchell as a wild-eyed dagger wielder who recites Jules Winnfield-styled scripture and torments children with equal gusto.
“Heart of the Beholder” definitely has its moments, and Tipton’s emotional story deserves to be told. Anyone who has endured holier-than-thou heckling from conservative houseguests repulsed by the copies of “Hellboy” and “Harry Potter” lining their video shelves will relate to Howard’s “Scarlet Letter”-styled fight.