As both of my readers are aware, one of the central goals of this blog is extracting meaning from meaningless bits of pop culture, like a mosquito greedily sucking on the desiccated remains of Imhotep. This began with my twenty-six part series on ABC Afterschool Specials and continued through my ten part journey through a collection of very special episodes of Blossom. Well, I’m all out of terrible gag gift DVDs, so I was left to turn to the one place where reliably empty television purports to teach lessons: the Lifetime network. If you’re in the mood to be charitable, you can say that Afterschool Specials were aimed at children, Blossom aimed at teens, and Lifetime movies are for adults, so I’m slowly hobbling through that Shakespeare riddle or something. No, sorry. There’s as much of a guiding hand in this process as there are in any of television’s great mystery shows. I’m basically doing whatever JJ Abrams thought up while on the crapper.
I’m kicking things off with 2013’s An Amish Murder, a title containing two of my favorite nouns. Because of my love of true crime and the Amish people (which probably owes its genesis to Witness, when Han Solo banged Maverick’s girlfriend in order to save the drug lord from Brick, but it’s possible I’m misremembering), I take a special interest in stories about the Amish and crime. I was morbidly fascinated by the gory tale of Edward Gingerich, who murdered his wife in a turn of events that could advertise for the importance of a well-ventilated workspace. I was amused by the Amish beard cutting attacks, mostly because if you need a specific kind of facial hair to get into the afterlife, chances are your religion is ridiculous. So with those cases in mind and a passing familiarity with Amish culture, I dove right in.
The film introduces our heroine the way all assertive-yet-damaged female cops meet their audiences: through jogging. I’m not sure what causes a filmmaker to think “you know what shows toughness? Fleeing.” Anyway, this is Kate Berkholder (Neve Campbell, answering that question no one’s asking, “Hey, whatever happened to Neve Campbell?”), the brand new chief of police of a community that includes both Amish and English (that’s the adorable word the Amish use for people who don’t look like Abe Lincoln). Kate has a unique perspective because she used to be Amish, but some horrible event caused her to leave the community. Or, you know, maybe she heard about Breaking Bad and really wanted to catch up. She’s called over to a crime scene where a dead Amish girl bears all the hallmarks of the awesomely named Slaughterhouse Killer, who has been inactive since right around the time Kate left Amish life for the English.
She believes Slaughterhouse to be an Amish guy named Daniel Lapp, something her brother says is impossible due to Kate’s origin story. See, Lapp raped Kate, and Kate gave him the hard goodbye with a shotgun. Her dad buried him out in the Old Mill (of course there’s an Old Mill, this is one of those stories), and the resulting tension led to Kate’s self-imposed exile. Kate thinks Lapp might be back somehow (and briefly filling me with the hope of Amish Zombies, and before you know it I’m half done with a new screenplay: We Come For Your Brains, English), but nope, he’s so many bones under the ashy dirt of the mill. Meanwhile, Kate perfunctorily romances the profiler sent in, and the two actors have so little chemistry it’s like they were shooting their scenes with CGI doubles. She eventually figures out — about an hour after any reasonably genre-savvy person would — that the killer is the local sheriff’s deputy who grew up in the area, moved away at about the right time, and moved back recently. She should have guessed this, since he’s played by ‘80s mainstay C. Thomas Howell, who has the second-biggest name in the movie, and there’s no way he’s playing some meaningless deputy. He tries to kill Kate, but with the timely assistance of the profiler and some local Amish, C. Thomas Howell is arrested.
As the opening credits played, “Based on the novel Sworn to Silence, by Linda Castillo” popped up onto the screen. This gave the project an entirely unintentional link to the Afterschool Specials, as those were all based on books (mostly by Betsy Byars). I had the same impression I took from those, which was that the book was probably a lot deeper than the film. With several books under my belt by now, I can see the little blemishes where the plot was spackled over, both for content and time. Mrs. Supermarket was interested enough, and she’s reading the book on her kindle and has assured me that it is a lot better than the movie. So there you go. The movie is perfectly serviceable as TV movies go, with a couple bona fide past-their-prime movie stars and a director, Stephen Gyllenhaal, who has been a solid professional for many years and whose balls once contained half of two very good actors.
That’s not to say An Amish Murder is without flaws. Kate comes off as very Mary Sueish when she’s consumed with guilt over killing her rapist. The casting renders the killer very obvious, and Lifetime’s commitment to family drama renders the story of a man who bleeds his victims to death rather bloodless. Still, the Amish parts, particularly the shunning, give it some idiosyncratic texture.
The most important thing about An Amish Murder for my purposes is what it teaches us. Well, the lesson appears to be that you can in fact come home again, even if “home” is a weird cult that has a mad-on for buttons. Kate solves the case and catches her killer, in the process making peace with her brother and the man she was supposed to marry. Good for you Kate. Turns out jogging was the right thing to do.
Or wait. It could be “yogging.” Might be a soft J.