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Still from Salem Falls
cover art

Jodi Picoult Collection

Director: Bradley Walsh, Paul Shapiro, Peter Werner
Cast: James Van Der Beek, Sarah Carter, AJ Michalka, Mariska Hargitay, Allison Pill

(US DVD: 31 Jul 2012)

The book is always better than the movie. Very rarely does the film version of a book do it justice. Salem Falls, Plain Truth and The Pact, the three films which comprise the Jodi Picoult Collection released by A&E Home Video are no exception. This bare bones compilation contains no special features. Given Picoult’s books often contain questions for reading group discussions, this makes the lack of extras seem odd, since Picoult is comfortable with her novels being catalysts for discussion and debate. An interview with Picoult regarding her involvement or lack thereof in the adaptations and how she views the outcome would be interesting.


Furthermore, aside from an executive producer credit on Salem Falls, she has no credited involvement in the films. A commentary with the directors and actors might provide insight that the finished products lack. Otherwise, Salem Falls and PlainTruth barely rise above the standard melodramas found on Lifetime TV. The Pact, less convoluted and more character driven, is the one compelling film of the trio.


Salem Falls is the story of a town full of walking wounded. Gillian Duncan, played by AJ Michalka, turns to witchcraft to fill the void left by an absentee mother and her overbearing father, Amos. There’s Addie Peabody, played by Sarah Carter, proprietress of the local diner who still serves meals to her dead daughter, Chloe. She also has an alcoholic father, Roy, whose late night joyride on a riding lawnmower causes an unfortunate accident for Jack McBradden, played by James Van Der Beek. 


The near collision leaves Jack, a stranger on his way to California, temporarily waylaid in town due to expensive car repairs. Addie meets Jack at the police station when she comes to pick up her father. She is apologetic and offers Jack money for repairs, which he immediately refuses. When Addie finds out that Jack is a laid-off teacher with money problems, she immediately offers him a job and a place to stay. Whether Addie takes such a vested interest in a complete stranger because of guilt, physical attraction or just simple kindness is unclear as well as unbelievable.  Even Jack questions her motives to which Addie responds, “I know you ran out of luck, and I don’t mind you being here until it finds you again.”


The two share a kiss within three days of Jack’s arrival, shocking because the best thing that can be said about Jack is that he is stoic, and that he indulges Addie in her game of make believe. This development occurs to the dismay of Gillian, who believes Jack has appeared in town because of a spell cast by herself and her coven, which consists of her friends Megan and Chelsea. 


We soon find out from Wes, an especially aggressive police officer and all-around not nice guy, tells Addie that Jack has registered as a sex offender.  Wes’ motives have more to do with his feelings for Addie than the good of the community.  Jack served eight months in jail after pleading guilty to the rape of a former student. Initially devastated, Addie quickly gives Jack the benefit of the doubt when he pleads his innocence. This revelation is the catalyst for a catastrophic chain of events.


When the news of Jack’s past reaches Gillian’s father Amos, he immediately does his best to whip the townspeople into a frenzy inciting them to drive Jack out of town. This news doesn’t discourage wannabe witch Gillian, who confronts Jack at the diner and throws herself at Jack warning him that he better leave town and take her with him.  Addie’s initial steadfastness begins to waver just as Jack becomes more resolved to stay. 


In another desperate attempt to get Jack’s attention, Gillian and her friends celebrate Beltane, a time when a Wicca’s spells have extra power. Of course, Beltane involves behavior straight out of The Crucible which includes nudity and dancing around a fire in the desolate woods. In a collision that was evident from the beginning of the film, a drunken Jack loses his way and stumbles across the girls. Meghan and Chelsea flee, but Gillian lingers believing her spell has finally brought her what she wants. The next thing the audience sees is a hysterical Gillian accusing Jack of rape.


The following morning Jack arrives at Addie’s house where they inexplicably decide to take their brief, albeit emotionally draining relationship, to the next level. Her hair still wet from her post-coital shower, the police show up at Addie’s to arrest Jack. Her loyalty wavering once again, Addie immediately presumes Jack guilty until she receives a note from Jack that simply states “Loyal” the town where Jack’s legal troubles began. So off Addie goes to investigate Jack’s past still unsure of his innocence or guilt.


What little suspense there is in Salem Falls is quickly resolved. Although we never know the complete sequence of events the night of the alleged assault, we do learn whether Jack is just a man who is perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time or an irredeemable sexual predator. Unfortunately, the character development is so sparse, it is hard to care. In addition, the time spent introducing irrelevant and underdeveloped side plots could have been spent exploring what draws Addie and Jack together, Gillian’s immediate obsession with Jack, and the girls’ interest and exploration into witchcraft.


Still from Plain Truth

Still from Plain Truth


Plain Truth, more suspenseful and better acted than Salem Falls, tells the story of a young Amish girl Katie Fitch, played by Alison Pill,accused of murder. The movie opens with the grisly discovery of a dead newborn infant on an Amish farm. Further investigation yields a missing pair of scissors and a bloody nightgown.  It doesn’t take the police long to hone in on the farmer’s daughter as a possible suspect. In the midst of questioning, Katie becomes seriously ill and is rushed to the hospital where doctors determine she has indeed recently given birth. Despite all of the physical evidence to the contrary, Katie denies ever being pregnant. As she is wheeled out of the hospital the police show up and arrest Katie.


A cousin of the family, who has inexplicably left the community, asks her friend, attorney Ellie, played by Mariska Hargitay, to defend the girl. In the midst of some type of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ crisis of her own, Ellie initially refuses until a pleading phone call from Katie’s mother. As a condition of Katie’s bail, Ellie is appointed her guardian which requires her to move in with Katie’s family and immerse herself in the Amish community. 


Living with the Fitches enables Ellie to get to know Katie better and to observe the family’s dynamics. The father, Aaron, is taciturn and unyielding in his beliefs even when it comes to defending his daughter. The mother, Sarah, is more forthcoming but still reserved. She also learns that the family is fractured due to several past events. Katie confides to Ellie that she had a younger sister who drowned while under her care. Katie even admits to having conversations with her deceased sibling.


Obviously disturbed and in denial, Ellie decides to have Katie evaluated by a psychiatrist, Cooper, who also happens to be Ellie’s ex-boyfriend. Cooper attributes Katie’s denial as a coping mechanism. Ellie’s frustration reaches an apex when Katie stands before the church elders and pleads guilty to a sin of the flesh. “I can’t believe what just happened. You’ll admit to them that you had sex and, in essence, had a baby, but you deny it to me,” Ellie states. Katie replies, “Because it’s expected of me, not because it’s true. It’s easier to confess than to fight.” Ellie struggles to come to terms with Katie’s beliefs especially when the girl’s behavior appears so contradictory.


In a fortuitous turn Jacob Fitch, Katie’s brother, returns to the farm after having been excommunicated from the church and shunned by his family for deciding to attend college. Katie’s lies start to unravel as Ellie finds out that Katie’s mother would arrange for Katie to visit her brother Jacob on weekends, giving Katie the opportunity to meet someone. When Ellie confronts Katie she admits to being drugged and raped at a party.  Cooper dismisses her story as more lies told to please Ellie. The dates don’t match up for the conception and birth.


In spite of her lies, Jacob is confident his sister is innocent.  “Plain folks, Amish, they don’t understand how to be selfish or greedy or proud—it’s not in their nature, certainly not enough to commit murder,” Jacob states.” Katie could not have committed murder simply because she is Amish.”


While putting away laundry Ellie comes across pictures of Katie with an unidentified young man who turns out to be Adam Sinclair the father of the baby. Katie admits to withholding the pregnancy from him as well. During this confrontation, Katie finally recounts the events of the night she gave birth. She claims to have fallen asleep and when she woke up the baby was gone. She viewed this as an answer to her prayers. That God had taken the baby back.


While Ellie initially decides to use temporary insanity as her defense, Katie convinces Ellie to let her take the stand and tell the truth, “Ellie, in my world if I make a mistake and admit it and repent, I’ll be forgiven,” Katie says, “But if I lie, I won’t be welcomed back.” With an earnest client and physical evidence that points to accidental death as opposed to murder, Ellie wages Katie’s innocence on her Amish upbringing.


As with Salem Falls, several unnecessary subplots; Ellie’s reconciliation with Cooper and the introduction of Samuel, Katie’s Amish boyfriend, take away from the main storyline. Katie’s parents are very underdeveloped as characters, even though their relationship with Katie and her brother are driving forces in the plot. Whatever midlife crisis Hargitay’s character was experiencing at the beginning of the film seems to magically dissolve making you wonder why it was brought up in the first place.


Still from The Pact

Still from The Pact


The Pact is the most character driven of the three films. It opens with a montage of home movie video clips and photos of two families, showing shared vacations and birthday parties. The closeness of the families is described by the daughter of Melanie and Mitchell Gold, played by Megan Mullally and Henry Czreny, “It’s almost like we’re just one family but too big to fit inside a single house,” she says. “We’re each other’s puzzle pieces, halves of a whole, the Golds and the Hartes.” It provides a superficial backstory including the establishment of the lifelong romance between Emily and the Hartes’ son Chris, played by Eric Lively. We see young lovers, presumably Chris and Emily, riding on an empty carousel kissing and stroking each other lovingly.


This ideallic picture of Americana is shattered by a late night phone call. Both families rush to the hospital. Chris’ parents Gus, played by Juliet Stevenson and James, played by Bob Gunton, and find out that Chris has been admitted with head injuries. Emily’s parents find out that she has died from a gunshot wound to the head. Whispers and accusations of a suicide pact between the young lovers start circulating as early as Emily’s wake.


During police questioning we find out that supposedly both Chris and Emily held the gun but Emily pulled the trigger leaving Chris to turn the gun on himself. However, the gun contained only one bullet, and he claims to have lost his balance and fallen leaving him as the lone survivor of the pact. He is also informed that Emily was pregnant thereby giving him motive to murder her. The one piece of evidence that could corroborate Chris’ story is a journal kept by Emily.


The closely interwoven bonds of the two families quickly begin to unravel as Melanie’s grief turns to anger and suspicion, and Chris is arrested for murder. Gus, feeling betrayed by Melanie’s determination to see Chris punished, confronts her, “I want you to defend him (Chris). I want you not to testify against him,” Gus pleads. “It’s my son, and I expect you to help me to defend my son.”

Flashbacks of happier times intermingled with Emily’s revealing journal entries used as narration illustrate that not everything with the families was not as it appeared on the surface. ”I’ve always known the way my father looks at Gus and the way Gus looks at him,” she writes. “The way my mother looks at Gus, the way she envies her.”  Shocked at the fact that she did not really know her daughter, regretful of her shortcomings as a mother and unable to handle the ugly truths hidden among years of happy memories, Melanie keeps the fact that she has the journal a secret even from her own husband. As if punishing Chris will make it all not true.


The Pact is about the loss of friends, of family and of love. It’s also a story about letting go: of anger, of blame, of things that we might think are important. Most importantly, The Pact is about forgiveness and realizing that things may not be what they seem but not laying blame when the truth is uncovered.

Rating:

Jennifer Lind-Westbrook currently writes reviews/recaps for "PopMatters,""TVFiends" and "BuddyTV" and its affiliates.


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