Film Review: Copperhead

Civil War story set in upstate New York, detailing the political passions that tear apart a small farming community far from the battlefields.

Ron Maxwell's American Civil War credentials are about as solid as Ulysses S. Grant's. The writer-director of Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003), he's shown historical fidelity to this pivotal struggle, and while the latter film was poorly received as formless and overlong, no one doubts the passion and heart that went into either.

Those two films were produced by Turner Entertainment—the former released theatrically by New Line, the latter by Warner Bros.—and had budgets and stars commensurate both with such backing and such a topic. But after the failure of the latter, which earned less than $13 million at the box office with a reported budget of $56 million, it's not surprising Maxwell's third Civil War film, Copperhead, is a much more modest independent feature.

Its budgetary limitations show. Many scenes could have used additional takes to polish the performances, and the often-poor sound recording is a shortcoming, particularly with stylized period dialogue. Scenes shot in enclosed areas sometimes suffer from echo-y audio, and squeaky-voiced Lucy Boynton is prone to mumbling. The acting quality varies greatly, and the leads show surprisingly little range: Billy Campbell as farmer Abner Beech, a Northern pacifist Democrat of the type derided as "Copperheads," is all wide-eyed seriousness, with a jaw jutted in permanent righteousness. Angus Macfadyen as fervently Abolitionist barrel-maker Jee Hagadorn overacts a storm, seeming not so much impassioned as insane. In contrast, Peter Fonda, appearing in a single scene, effortlessly creates a character with a sense of dimension and of a past that has brought him to this point, despite baldly didactic dialogue. Others in small roles acquit themselves fine, suggesting that had the leads had more time and more takes, they surely would have developed their own characters more fully.

Based on Harold Frederic's 1893 novel The Copperhead, the film—which originally starred Jason Patric as Beech before he was let go after what Maxwell called "creative differences" once shooting began—is set in a rural community in upstate New York in 1862. As the narrator bludgeoningly informs us, "That's when the war came home. And nothin' was ever the same again."

Abner, who has an apple orchard and whose hired hand Hurley (Hugh Thompson) delivers milk, believes in neither side of the war, but simply wants it to end, feeling President Lincoln's choice to fight endangers the Constitution. This puts him at odds with his son, Thomas Jefferson Beech (Casey Thomas Brown), whose family calls him Jeff though he wants to be called Tom, and who enlists on the Union side.

The whole Tom/Jeff thing is needlessly muddling, with different people calling him different things, and doesn't add substantially to the story. It also points to a misshapen script that meanders, repeats itself and makes odd narrative choices. Maxwell and screenwriter Bill Kauffman give us two church-sermon scenes practically on top of each other, and early in the film have someone for no clear reason sing a song at a barn dance, stopping the developing story as short as did Ricky Ricardo song segments on "I Love Lucy." And little thought seems to have been given to glaring plot questions: It's unclear why a couple of middle-aged guys loudly berate Hurley, who's older than they, about why he's not fighting for the Union. Um…you're younger than he is. Why aren't you?

The film, shot at the Kings Landing Historical Settlement in New Brunswick, Canada, does showcase authentic-looking period detail, particularly the clothing. Unfortunately, so might a museum display, and this turgid tale is no more moving, in either sense of that word.