Erland Hollingsworth's film Homestead is an unsteady hybrid of Western epic and suburban horror film. It poses all the questions of the home invasion scenario: How safe is your home? Can you defend loved ones against unreasonable odds? What does one truly own?
A homesteader family—made up of Paw, Maw, and young-uns—live off the land in an isolated cabin. One day they're visited by a man (Greg Kreik) claiming to be a surveyor for the railroad about to come through. Paw Robert (Brian Krause) orders the man off his land; he has no intention of pulling up stakes, the railroad be damned. That is, until the intruder shucks off his disguise and reveals himself to be the front man of a gang of gunmen intent on violating Robert's domain. The opening scenes set the stage well, with a plucky heroine in 12-year-old daughter Irene, played by Betsy Sligh. She is meant to hit notes of True Grit's Mattie Ross and Ms. Sligh has the resolved brow and a steely stare necessary for the part.
Turns out Robert was once a member of this band of desperados. He took their money and high-tailed it, changed his name, married Beth (Jamie Bernadette), made her Maw to twins Irene and Brian (Cavan Tonascia), and settled down. Now the gang, led by Bible-quoting Ezekiel (Scot Scurlock) wants what's theirs and then some, including for Robert to return to the outlaw life. Ezekiel refers to his motley crew as a "family," and is part gunslinger, evangelist, and cult leader. "Ain't nothing sadder than a man who don't know who he is," he says of Robert.
The action that follows aspires to take us into Straw Dogs territory, but sadly, Hollingworth ain't no Peckinpah. The production values are low-budget, which is not a criticism in itself; the impulse to make a film disproportionate to the cost is one that has yielded great results and launched big-time careers. A frugal budget doesn't have to be a detriment if one can tell a good story in a confined space (Hollingsworth is also credited as writer). And here's where Homestead takes some dubious turns.
Hollingworth's camera is set mostly at midlevel, in tight, maybe to mask a dearth of set design. But between that and the editing, it's hard to tell who's doing what. Hands dart out, rifles fire, people run, but the action is not blocked in a convincing way. You don't know how many people are in the room, since no establishing shot of everybody entering is provided. Much of it happens outside at night, so faces appear out of and disappear into the inky blackness. Deals are made and betrayed ("We're comin’ out!"), strong men crumble, and kids suddenly have guns in their hands. It's even hard to tell who's in the cabin and who's outside. If Hollingsworth was going for a cowpoke version of La Ronde, it'd be one thing. But there's nothing so lofty going on here: this script just can’t make up its mind.
It's difficult to know who this movie is even about. Attach yourself to a protagonist at your own risk. Bullets fly all over the place. The final words of the film, by the survivors of events, are either meant as pithy or to suggest a sequel.
The cast contains familiar faces. Brian Krause (Robert) was a regular on the TV series Charmed. Jamie Bernadette (Beth) is known for TV as well, appearing most recently on CSI New Orleans, and has starred in I Spit on Your Grave: Deju Vu as Camille Keaton's daughter. Young Betsy Sligh (Irene) has been building her resumé with films like Amazon's rom-com I Want You Back.
Writer/director Erland Hollingsworth has a number of shorts to his credit. He filmed Homestead in Knoxville, Tennessee, and makes good use of the rolling hills in the daylight scenes.
The poster for Homestead is lurid and tantalizing, depicting fire and brimstone and maybe a touch of the supernatural. It will do its job and attract attention to the film, which is available to stream. The film doesn't quite match the promise, but it does work up the occasional flair, like the opening shot of two people running in the distance—we don't yet know who they are—fleeing across the fog-shrouded prairie only to be stopped by a rifle shot. It's a spiffy bit of foreshadowing. Italian composer Simone Cilio's mournful score sets exactly the right tone. Jamie Bernadette and Scot Scurlock each have their turn at scenery-chewing in their soliloquies. Dallas Page, Mark Madeo, and Mike Ferguson are grizzled and ominous as the gunmen. Mike Markoff, a glowering long-haired Fabio type, has a surprisingly affecting moment when he demands his captives read to him before he kills them.
All that aside, however, we want to return to 12 year-old Irene, to see what she's capable of. After establishing her creds, she is curiously sidelined for most of the film. In the first minutes, Irene sets her jaw and gives her on-the-nose opinion, then intones, "Just speakin' what I'm thinkin'." Irene is straightforward and a straight shooter. She will have her time, but only after most of the mayhem is over. That's too bad. We want to see her right along. Irene is Homestead's soul.
Homestead. Written and directed by Erland Hollingsworth. 80 minutes.
Streaming and VOD. 2023.