Daniel Kraus’ PBS sponsored documentary about local law enforcement in a small southern town is an outright masterpiece. Sheriff strives to do little more than give us a look behind the badge as Ronald E. Hewitt secures the North Carolina community of Brunswick County. What we get instead is the broadest scope of human drama as depicted within the tinniest of backward burgs. Hewitt’s family has a long tradition in the area – several streets and buildings in town are named after his kin. But it’s the buzzcut Baptist who rules things now, his God, country and Colt .45 mentality a breath of fresh air in these days of questionable police practices and criminal oriented news reporting. In fact, if Hewitt could be cloned and his doubles resituated around the country, it’s a foregone conclusion that the crime rate nationwide would decrease ten fold.
Following the cinema verite style of fact filmmaking, Kraus isn’t out to have talking heads narrate Hewitt’s life story. Instead, he rides along, quasi-Cops style, as the compact constable goes about his daily chores. One day, he could be speaking to a school assembly. The next, he could be investigating the robbery and murder of a local attorney. Over the course of the film, we see Hewitt dealing with a life or death manhunt, coordinating a roadside dragnet, and busting up an illegal video poker emporium. Always the gentleman, this sheriff never looses his temper. He doesn’t curse like a sailor or aggressively pursue suspects. Instead, Hewitt believes in using the techniques he’s learned on the job, in combination with the close knit nature of the surrounding area, to aid in his investigations. He can even work the local media, when necessary.
Indeed, he’s the human representation of dedication and determination. He never quits until the last lead is followed up and never rejects a request for assistance. When he travels to a State Sheriff’s Conference and, unexpectedly, wins the award for outstanding sheriff, his humble thank you and acknowledgement of his peers is priceless. Thanks to the manner in which Kraus captures the on the job moments – directly, precisely, without any identifiable motive or manipulation – we view Hewitt is pure hero worshipping terms. He becomes the guy we wish was looking out for us, the type of peace officer your parents once advised you could trust and rely on. While there are probably a few skeletons in his closet (everyone’s life has them, even if they’re incredibly minor at best), we are sold a full blown family values version of small town swagger. And we love it.
Kraus makes sure to show us Hewitt’s sense of personal pride as well. He is careful in how he dresses, making sure to always look put together and well turned out. He never shows fear, or a lack of confidence, though an occasional aside for a bottle of cold water or a moment alone reveal a very real, very vulnerable human being. Kraus uses his camera instinctually, picking up on points that a more staged approach would probably miss. When the lady behind the video poker counter pleads ignorance as to any remaining money in the building, Hewitt delivers a wonderful little speech about being “right and square” with his suspects. After a little more poking and prodding, the cash she swore didn’t exist magically ends up in his hands.
Sheriff is also interested in the different cultural dynamics of small Southern town life. Hewitt is seen hunting, shotguns slung, daughter along to provide firm parent/child companionship. There is also an intriguing moment when the lawman congratulates his son’s friend for making first chair percussion in the school band. “I told you he was going to do that!”, Hewitt’s son says with a smile. A hug and a kiss confirm another close tie. In fact, most of this man’s life is made up of networks and contacts, links between people he’s known for decades and individuals he’s interacted with on both sides of the criminal justice system. It a closeness that helps support a few Solomon like opinions. While he doesn’t like the local nudist colony, (and many in the community don’t) he still champions the member’s right to live that lifestyle – as long as they are doing it peaceably.
The new DVD from FACETS Video helps broaden our perspective. Along with the original 76 minute theatrical version of the film, we get over 40 minutes of deleted footage, sequences expanding our understanding of Hewitt’s duties and his approach to same. What’s even more compelling is, once we’ve seen the additional material, we recognize that the narrative doesn’t need the extra enlightenment. Kraus has done such a marvelous job of sketching in all the necessary details from the collection of sequences we see in the film that Hewitt and his circumstances come across fully formed and capable of easy consideration. As intimate as it is instructional, and insightful, Sheriff stands as a unique cinematic accomplishment. It’s impossible to imagine that, when Brunswick County was chosen and Hewitt was contacted about this particular project, such a stellar behind the scenes statement would be made.
It’s a credit to Kraus who did something similar with his look at a 40 year old beer drinking wrestling fanatic with Down’s Syndrome named JeffTowne. What seemed obvious at first all of a sudden transcended its borders to blossom into an engaging, irresistible discovery. Sheriff Ronald E. Hewitt could easily become a modern day Andy Griffin, ‘golly gee’ philosophizing making everyone from the Carolina’s seem like hambone hicks. Instead, we see the meshing of modernity with tried and true tradition. The result is something spectacular, a film about a job that actually explains said career’s allure and fulfillment. He may not like the hours, and many of the crimes he must investigate are heinous and inhumane, but this is one lawman who takes pride in the service he provides. He’s a Sheriff, and darn proud of it – and so are we.