By Merle Bertrand | June 4, 2000

Most independent feature films these days…heck, for that matter, most contemporary Hollywood studio pictures, have a hard enough time telling one solid story. Yet director David Mackay manages to relate TWO in his taut and gripping drama, “The Lesser Evil.” Or, to be more precise, “The Lesser Evil” conveys a single storyline, albeit one in two parts with a twenty-two year gap in the middle. As four adult friends meet in a wooded cabin, we quickly learn that it’s not just another “Big Chill” reunion when one of them, lumber yard owner Derek Eastman (Colm Feore), reveals that he’s a murder suspect. Suddenly, the past has caught up with them. Their world changed forever on a fateful mid-1970s autumn day when high school student Frank O’Brian (Steven Petrarca) ditched his jock buddies to hang out with his real friends, who happen to be a collection of geeks and misfits. Young Derek (Jonathan Scarfe) and Ivan Williams (Marc Worden), a mild-mannered lad, join Frank in badgering George (Adam Scott), the biggest misfit of all, into buying beer with one of Derek’s fake IDs. When George doesn’t return, the guys investigate, only to get in a fight with some of Frank’s jock buddies. After the rumble, Derek produces a gun and a plan to scare the bejeezus out of the bullies. When the prank goes awry, it forces the guys to cover up the resulting lethal events, which they’d managed to do for twenty-two years. Until now. After drifting apart since those long ago events, Frank (Tony Goldwyn), now a hard-assed cop, and George (David Paymer), a sleazy, curiously unrepentant attorney, believe they must concoct a scheme to keep the crime hidden and get Derek off the hook. But Ivan (Arliss Howard), or should I say, Father Williams, a sardonic cigar-chomping Catholic priest and the pivot point around which events revolve, argues that now’s the time to come clean…to the rest of the group’s considerable consternation.
“The Lesser Evil” is an exceptionally well told tale. Perfectly timed intercutting among the four bickering former friends and their younger selves reinforces and underscores the ever-more complicated circumstances surrounding the original tragedy and vice-versa. What’s even more impressive is that the story isn’t set in stone. Circumstances surrounding the initial event continue to evolve in the present day. This leads to a fascinating sequence of shifting alliances between the adults as they deal with a horrible situation that just keeps getting worse with each move they make. The biggest crime here isn’t the death, cover-up, underhanded back-stabbing and extortion at the core of this film. It’s that this film isn’t out there for everyone to see. If more filmmakers could check out “The Lesser Evil,” maybe it would remind them of the lost art of storytelling.

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