Friday, September 09, 2022

Mysterious Circumstance: The Death of Meriwether Lewis

For the Jefferson Administration, his alleged suicide was very similar to the Vincent Foster incident, but Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark) was also a national hero and a high-ranking office-holder, as well as a presidential confidant. His decision to kill himself was certainly rather sudden, giving rise to doubts that evolved into conspiracy theories. The contradictory accounts provided by the witness who found his body only fanned the flames of skepticism and suspicion. Director-screenwriter Clark Richey presents Rashomon-style several conflicting versions of what might have happened that fateful night in Mysterious Circumstance: The Death of Meriwether Lewis, which opens today in Los Angeles.

According to Priscilla Grinder, who maintained the remote travelers’ “inn,” Grinder’s Stand, with her husband Robert, Gov. Lewis acted erratically when he arrived, and became even twitchier during dinner. Then late that night, he stumbled out to the front yard, where he shot himself—twice. Or maybe not. She changed her story several times over the years, but that is the one she tells his friend Alexander Wilson, when he comes to investigate on Jefferson’s behalf.

Over the years, Major John Neely, the Chickasaw agent, who was traveling with Lewis, has become one of historians’ prime suspects. His claimed he was off chasing their runaway pack horses while Lewis was at Grinder’s Stand, which definitely sounds fishy. Richey certainly presents him as a potential co-conspirator, along with the rest of Lewis’s traveling party and the conveniently absent Robert Grinder.

The very real premise of
Mysterious Circumstance is intriguing, but the performances are a little rough in patches. However, Billy Slaughter has some effective moments of world-weary resignation as Wilson and Sonny Marinelli is appropriately fierce and flinty as old Grinder. As it happens, the film’s top-billed star, John Schneider (from the original Dukes of Hazzard) gets relatively little screentime as the scheming Neely.

Richey nicely uses the limited sets and locations to faithful recreate the rustic “charm” of the era (or rather the lack thereof). It all looks pretty authentic. However, he only positions one of the possible versions of Lewis’s death as a proper flashback. The others are shown to the audience without any contextualization, which ironically favors the least advantageous to Lewis’s defenders.

The case of Meriwether Lewis certainly lends itself to a
Rashomon treatment, but the nearly two-hour Mysterious Circumstance should be a little tighter and some of its performances should be a little smoother and more confident. The concept is better than the execution. Mostly for Lewis & Clark buffs, Mysterious Circumstance opens today (9/9) at the Laemmle NoHo.