This documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky details the murder trial of Delbert Ward. Delbert's of a family of 4 brothers (the other 3 being Roscoe, Lyman and William - Bill, for ...
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Paul G. Lyzun
A documentary on Peter Dunning, the proprietor of Mile Hill Farm in Vermont who has isolated himself away from his family and often suggests to the filmmakers to make his own suicide a narrative device.
This documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky details the murder trial of Delbert Ward. Delbert's of a family of 4 brothers (the other 3 being Roscoe, Lyman and William - Bill, for short), working as semi-literate farmers, and living together in isolation in a ramshackle shack, until William's death. The subsequent police investigation and medical examiner's autopsy suggested Bill may not have died from natural causes, and Delbert was arrested on charges of second-degree murder. Under questioning by police, Delbert appears to have waived his rights and signed a confession, but, it seems he might not have been competent, and was coerced into doing so. The film explores possible motives for the crime, from mercy-killing (Bill was ill at the time), to progressively more outré hypotheses. It also shows how residents of the rural community of Munnsville, NY rallied to the support of one of their own (residents previously considered the Wards as social outcasts), against what they ...Written by
Tad Dibbern <DIBBERN_D@a1.mscf.upenn.edu>
Picked by Entertainment Weekly magazine as one of the "50 Greatest Independent Films" in a special supplement devoted to independent films that was only distributed to subscribers in October 1997. See more »
Dedicated to the memory of William J. Ward (1925-1990) May you rest in peace See more »
In a simple way this is just an "us and them" story, with the hardworking small town folk being treated like buffoons by the big, mean, well-groomed city justice people. But Berlinger and Sinofsky are far more talented than that, and their film ends up being one of the most human films I've ever seen in terms of their generosity to their subjects. It's generous because they don't put their views into the film, they don't decide how we should view the allegations, but at the same time don't restrict themselves from becoming somewhat involved in these brothers' lives.
At first we're inclined to look down on these brothers -- they rarely bathe, they're not educated, they can hardly hear what the documentarians say to them. They're completely unselfconscious. Our natural reaction is to place ourselves above them. But the filmmakers' greatness is in how within about half an hour we find ourselves connected to them as equals. In fact, we notice how philosophical they can be, maybe without realizing it -- without being treated like simpleminded saints. The directors give us a view of the townspeople, too, the Ward brother supporters, many of which are quite articulate themselves. (One elderly gentleman, a hard man from the outside, is surprisingly forward-thinking, when it's speculated that the brothers may have had an incestuous relationship, and he uses the word "gay" rather than the expected offensive term, and refers to the justice people as "narrow minded," and how whatever kind of relationship the bothers had, sexual or not, it should not have any bearing on the case.) There's one startling description of the brothers' love for one another, that if indeed one of the brothers did kill the other, it was in the same way he would have killed a sick and dying cow, paralyzed after giving birth. (There's one horrifying scene where a pig is killed that isn't quite as lovely.)
The communal, familial way in which the filmmakers interact with the brothers is exactly the same way these townspeople interact with one another. The construction of the film is just perfect for the entire film. It's uncomfortable without being cruel, it's friendly without being cloying, it's dark and disturbing without seeming phony. When joyful fiddle music plays after a scene, it's never mocking the way it would be in another film. (And one of the greatest scenes in the film is an image of a ragged man with his cows, and some very, very haunting violin music by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, whose entire score is outstanding, and anticipates "Fargo.") When the trial takes place, we're implicated because we don't know the truth. By this point we're so invested in these brothers that when one of them is on the bench, shaking and terrified from nervousness -- these brothers just don't have this kind of human contact -- the filmmakers have completely earned our tears. It's not a sentimental moment, it's as horrifying as the scene of the pig being killed. You feel as if the judicial system is raping this man of his dignity. This is a masterpiece. 10/10
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