Case Number 03399: Small Claims Court


Lionsgate // 2002 // 73 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 10th, 2003

The Charge

Lightning struck twice when a father's evil spread.

The Case

A fearless and ambitious entrepreneur named Nathan Cross moves with his consumptive wife and two sons to the little town of Defiance, Missouri in 1874. He establishes a saloon, but runs afoul of the local gang boss and extortionist, Clay Randall. Cross is killed, but Randall, having the disadvantage of being a gang boss living in a pre-Godfather II world, allows his enemy's young sons to live.

The Cross boys grow up polar opposites. The oldest, Will, inherits his father's ambition and love of family. He marries and establishes a business with one of his dad's partners. Tommy Cross, on the other hand, inherits Nathan's stubbornness, and his violent nature (rumors abound in Defiance that Nathan Cross was actually the cold-blooded killer Casey Dobson from Kansas). When Tommy kills a couple of Randall's gang, prompting the town bully to put a price on his head, Will abandons everything he's spent his life building to ride off with his brother. The two have a series of adventures out in the wild, most involving Tommy's violent outbursts and acts of murder, and Will's efforts to keep his brother under control. Adding to Will's problems is the fact that Tommy, like their mother, is now consumptive, the illness weakening him more and more as the brothers try to stay one step ahead of the bounty hunters pursuing them. All of it leads inexorably to a showdown between Will and Randall's gang, but is the good brother bad enough to get the job done?

Defiance is a run-of-the-mill Western revenge piece, the film's hero wronged, and wronged, and wronged again until we have no doubt he's going to snap, and when he does the villains will pay a horrific price. What makes the viewing experience unique is just how low-budget an affair this picture is. Watching an earnest genre picture dripping in the straight-to-video aesthetics of soft porn jiggle flicks, lowest-common-denominator wacky comedies, or pretentious student art films is downright bizarre. This is writer-director Doveed Linder's first feature (a short film called Strawberry Spring, based on Stephen King source material, is Linder's only other credit on IMDb), and the job done is serviceable if uninspiring. In the end, the picture doesn't escape the weight of cliché with which it plays, but the attempt is good enough it's difficult to assess whether the fault is in the writing, the acting, or the severe budgetary limitations. Linder's script, for example, tries to compel with its clever use of flashback, but is undermined by an expository voiceover that brings to mind Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard. The narration is there to prevent our confusion, but was it planned that way from the beginning, or was it a last ditch Band-Aid applied when the picture was in the editing suite and Linder realized there wasn't enough coverage, or the actors' performances weren't carrying the show? Stiff as new denim, the performances aren't anywhere near good enough to deliver the needed emotion. But the actors (all unknowns) are so fully committed, so earnest, they manage to avoid that special variety of low-budget thespianism that inspires audiences to squeeze their eyes shut and press index fingers in their ears to avoid flushing with embarrassment for everyone involved in the project, not to mention their families and pets. The script gives us little insight into why Will and Tommy -- opposites in every way -- would have a relationship at all, but more experienced actors could probably have made the viewer feel it.

Linder clearly understands what makes Westerns tick, but couldn't deliver the texture and depth of character for which this film was reaching. My guess is that Defiance wants to be a character piece, an examination of duty, responsibility, loyalty, love, morality, and immorality as seen in the relationship between two brothers. That part of the story begs to be the centerpiece of the tale, the foundation on which the hackneyed revenge story is built and sold to the audience. It's not.

Like the film itself, this DVD is largely forgettable. The transfer is full screen. The framing doesn't look crowded, but the compositions are hardly dazzling so it's difficult to assess what the intended aspect ratio may have been. I'm unable to pin down with any certainty in what format the picture was shot, but the DVD transfer shows a significant amount of haloing from edge enhancement, and the overall quality of the image screams video. The image lacks detail, and is marred by some chroma noise as well as isolated grain. In addition, colors are sometimes oversaturated, leaving fleshtones, for instance, looking highly artificial. All in all, the image quality isn't even as good as broadcast television.

The stereo audio is acceptable.

While Defiance ultimately fails to gel satisfactorily, Linder and company deserve a little credit for taking a stab at delivering an honest-to-goodness Western on the sort of budget (by the looks of it) that usually requires actors to provide their own wardrobe, and location shoots at friends' houses. Ultimately, though, Linder bit off more than the budget could chew, and this disc is definitely not recommended.

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Scales of Justice
Judgment: 59

Perp Profile
Studio: Lionsgate
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* English
* Spanish

Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Theatrical Trailer

* IMDb