When reviewing a film, I normally hate to generalize or resort to hyperbole. But in the case of “Septien,” I really think it fits. There are two kinds of people in the world: People who won’t care for “Septien” and people who will think it’s amazing. The latter type of person will really “get it.” They’ll see themes and allusions up the wahzoo. They’ll hail the film as a work of art. And who knows, maybe they’re right. Real art is many things to many people. Sometimes, however, the reason a work of art leaves so much open to interpretation is because the artist hasn’t fully fleshed out their idea.
Michael Tully wrote, directed and stars as Cornelius Rawlings, one of three brothers living on a small backwoods farm in rural Tennessee. Cornelius has just returned unexpectedly after an unexplained 18-year absence. His brothers are pleased to see him but less pleased that Cornelius remains mum on pretty much every subject. The brothers quickly re-assume their roles. Ezra is the maternal one. A secretly self-loathing closet case, he keeps the house in a compulsively tidy state and prays for the souls of the others. Amos is the tortured artist, draining resources as he paints disturbing scenes for hours on end without any intention to sell his work. He’s both reverent of Cornelius and jealous of him. Cornelius is a passive-aggressive brat whom everyone adores anyway. Why they do isn’t exactly clear, though he does possess a tremendous amount of squandered athletic talent. To say these are broken people is likely inaccurate because they were probably screwed up all along. After all, they aren’t the only irreverent rednecks in town. Must be something in the water.
Helping out on the non-working farm is the resident simpleton, Wilbur. He spends his days running a metal detector over the grounds, finding a surprising array of items. Why someone would bury a working VHS camcorder (with a battery charger?), is beyond reason. But it gives Wilbur a chance to make a movie so that we can see what a beautiful soul he has. He sleeps in a tire and counts kitty petting as one of his hobbies.
By now you’ve probably guessed which camp I’m in. I didn’t want to hate “Septien.” I enjoyed the tone, which was suspenseful with the essence of a Harmony Korine film. (Incidentally, Korine’s wife, Rachel, has a featured role.) The flat line delivery that is so prevalent in this type of indie darling didn’t bother me here. It almost made a kind of sense that these characters would speak so dispassionately. Ezra’s (at times cliché) colorfulness was a nice contrast to his dusty, bearded brothers both in wardrobe and personality. Though I didn’t actually like any of the characters, they earnestly compelled me. With the promise of a big payoff, I gave it the benefit of the doubt right up until the end. Of course, I won’t give away the ending. But you should be warned. The big reveal isn’t that much of a surprise. The aftermath is confusing and, though it involves a lot fire, rather lackluster.
The enjoyable elements aren’t enough to make a successful film because the story takes a very long time to get going. After numerous lengthy scenes of character development, we’re introduced, in a single long shot, to a man in black. He appears out of a Honey Bucket and slowly walks off camera. He enigmatically pops back in from time to time, once with some creepy twin girls. But we don’t actually meet him till the film’s final act. That man is the plot. I guess, seeing as how he’s on foot, it just takes him a while to get there.
I understand that it’s not meant to be plot-heavy. I know that we’re getting a detailed look at whom these people are. But every movie needs to have some sort of plot. “Septien” barely meets that requirement. Every once in a while, something happens that feels like a turning point, such as the aforementioned buried camera mystery or Amos believing his paintings are prophetic. The brothers ominously sing themselves to sleep with a song about expelling demons. Cornelius repeatedly hustles local jocks into sports competitions they can’t win. All of these things feel like they should lead somewhere explosive. But they don’t. Either it turns out to be nothing or, at best, it’s something relatively insignificant to the plot as a whole.
The people who will really love “Septien” won’t mind waiting for Mr. Plot Device to show up looking like a hillbilly Hasselhoff. They’re too busy appreciating the hell out of the film’s quirkiness. They could sit and watch a character develop all day long. They’re the people who loved “Gummo” and think civilians make more interesting actors than the professionals. I’m the other guy.