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Case Number 18261: Small Claims Court

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The Donner Party

First Look Pictures // 2009 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // February 5th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Gibron wanted more "long pig" in this classic cannibalism tale.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Donner Party, published January 24th, 2003, is also available.

The Charge

How Far Would You Go To Survive?

The Case

When you decide to make a movie called The Donner Party, you'd better be prepared to either meet or inventively thwart expectations. After all, along with Alive, the story of the fabled fatal plane trip by a bunch of South American soccer players through the Andes, the mythic American folklore of flesh eating is one of the cannibal classics. So if you intend to avoid all the skin snacking, cut back on the gore and gruesomeness, and deliver what is more or less a straightforward drama, you better be ready for some baffled blowback. Even worse, you can't hire someone like Crispin Glover, the Douglas Sirk of quirk, and except to let him play it straight. Yet that's exactly what first time filmmaker TJ Martin does with his take on a group of pioneer émigré survivors struggling toward California. Collectively known as "The Forlorn Hope," their tale is compelling, if not quite what we expect from this kind of ersatz exploitation idea.

But then nothing about The Donner Party is per usual. The film focuses on the aftermath of the abortive attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mr. Foster (Crispin Glover, Willard) is tired of hired hand Mr. Eddy (Clayne Crawford, Wristcutters: A Love Story) hording all the meat. An early winter is upon them and everyone is hungry and helpless. This causes friction between the camps, especially with widower Mr. Graves (Mark Boone Junior, Batman Begins), his no good son-in-law Mr. Fosdick (Cary Wayne Moore, Vacancy), and daughters Ann (Catherine Black, American Psycho) and Mary (Alison Haislip, The Indian). When Mr. Stanton (Christian Kane, Leverage) returns from an abortive rescue attempt with the promise of passage to California, the warring factions decide to stop feuding and find a way to make the treacherous journey. When the promised stockpile along the way never materializes, the group makes a horrific decision. They will begin to eat each other in order to survive.

Again, this may sound sick and disturbing, but stories of cannibalism which skirt the reality of the original organ donor program are problematic. By keeping the taboo subject in the shadows, by basically not dealing with it outright, the approach renders the inherent socio-horror inert. Let's face it—what's more compelling: people thinking about eating each other and then shown nibbling little indiscrete pieces of ambiguous sir-loin, or arguments over ethics followed by slow-mo slice and dice vivisection? There is so little blood in this version of The Donner Party's story that it's literally and figuratively anemic. There is a clear difference between slow burn suspense and inertia, and director Martin struggles to find it. There is also something antithetical to making Crispin Glover "underplay" his role. We want the famed whack job to wig out a little, to let his flawless period piece persona grow unhinged—at least once. He never does, but it doesn't matter. Our favorite resident nutjob is well matched by the rest of the cast, each perfectly capable of representing the era without appearing too modern or contemporary. Of course, a little of said gentility goes a long, long way. As you can see by the plot synopsis, everyone calls each other by their surname—no closeness. No intimacy. Just "Mr. This" and "Mr. That."

At least First Look Studios step up and offer a wonderful DVD presentation of this otherwise passive motion picture. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image does a remarkable job of highlighting Martin's amazing vistas. Seemingly shot on location in some part of the snowy mountain wilderness, the various winterscapes and leafless tree silhouettes look sensational here. Director of Photography Seamus Tierney deserves special acknowledgement for his work. As for the audio, the Dolby Digital Stereo is as atmospheric as two channels can get. The musical score by Eimear Noone is excellent in providing a moody ambience, while the dialogue is easily discernible. Sadly, the only added content here is some standard trailers and previews. Nothing about the cast. Nothing about The Donner Party in general—and that would clearly help, since there have been several suggestions that this movie is less than faithful to what really happened more than 150 years ago.

What is lacks in gore, The Donner Party makes up for in talent and attempted invention. While it may not always work, it's far more triumphant than trying.

The Verdict

Not Guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: First Look Pictures
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
• Spanish
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Horror

Distinguishing Marks

• None


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• Official Site

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