Wednesday, August 31, 2016

PDXFF ’16: On the Farm

Victorian Londoners might have their faults, but they cared enough about their prostitutes to create a firestorm of alarm over the Ripper murders. Unfortunately, late 1990s/early millennial Vancouver was apathetic enough to allow Robert Pickton to murder forty-nine marginalized women before he was finally acknowledged and caught. Bizarrely, the historical record is even worse than the dramatized survivors’ stories in Rachel (Tank Girl) Talalay’s On the Farm (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Portland Film Festival.

Initially, only Constable Sindead McLeod, whose beat includes the Red Light district, recognizes the obvious signs of a serial killer at work. The prostitutes themselves try to take protective measures, but drug addiction and general desperation keep leading them into bad decisions, like getting into the pick-up truck of millionaire hog farmer Robert Pickton (known simply as “the Farmer” in OTF). He already had a bad reputation among the sex-workers, but he had a knack for finding street walkers jonesing for a hit.

Nikki Taylor is a First Nations prostitute based on a real life escapee from Pickton’s farm of horrors, but her timeline is radically different. In real life, Pickton was briefly tried for her attempted murder, but the prosecution was dropped for reasons of incompetence well before the grisly discoveries on his now infamous hog farm.

Pickton appears only briefly in OTF (but Ben Cotton’s wild eyes and tangled David Koresh hair are eerily spot-on). Instead, Talalay and screenwriter Dennis Foon (adapting Stevie Cameron’s expose) focus on Taylor’s harrowing ordeal and the career-threatening risks McLeod and a handful of RCMP task force colleagues willingly run to stop the killings.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is frighteningly convincing as Taylor, never whitewashing any of her infuriating junkie realities. She truly could be her own worst enemy. Probably the most recognizable cast member, Tantoo Cardinal delivers the film’s teaching moments with welcome understatement as Taylor’s mother. Patrick Gallagher (Attila the Hun in the Night at the Museum franchise) nicely anchors the film with hardnosed grit as RCMP Jeff Keeley. Sara Canning is competent enough as McLeod, but she lacks similar presence.

OTF had a special community premiere before it aired on Canadian television, but the CBC production’s small screen origins are always pretty evident. Viewers can see the spaces where the commercials would be plugged in. Still, Talalay steadily cranks up the tension and the outrage, reducing viewers to a near state of apoplexy. It is a safe bet Judge James Williams is not a fan, but it is undeniably effective as a procedural with a social conscience. Recommended for Law & Order and Da Vinci’s Inquest fans, On the Farm screens this Saturday (9/3) as part of this year’s Portland Film Festival.