The 'Evil' that Men Do: 'Older than America', Retitled to 'American Evil'

What might be a difficult film that debates historical and ethnic rights actually turns out to be a bloody good thriller with a Victorian frame of mind.

American Evil (original title: Older Than America)

Distributor: Metrodome
Cast: Rose Berens, Adam Beach, Tantoo Cardinal, ... oh go on then - Bradley Cooper (but he's hardly in it!)
Rated: PG15
Director/Writer: Georgina Lightning
UK Release date: 2012-03-05

Georgina Lightning is good – she can do ‘evil’ on a budget. And this is real evil: cruelty to children evil. As only the corrupt of the Catholic Church know how to enact. In this case Native American girls and boys are scalded, punished, tortured and silenced in the name of saving their immortal souls. Lightning, the writer and director of American Evil (2008), originally titled this film Older than America. In many ways that's a better, more descriptive title, but understandably not as commercial.

This film is not a lecture about land rights or a moralising vision about injustices on a large political scale. Rather, it's a pretty good thriller that presents the emotional and psychological anguish of a family from a personal and convincing angle. Lightning has amassed a cast of mostly Native American actors, with the European-American cast members in the peripheral roles – so a reversal of the usual casting dynamics. The storyline of battling against the adversity of their circumstances does not depend on the white characters coming to the rescue of the disenfranchised Reservation dwellers.

What this film does well, in fact brilliantly well, is show how the processes of diagnosing mental illness can be abused and used as a weapon to oppress. This is what makes the film more of a melodrama (and I use that term in admiration) that revisits and requisitions tropes from the 19th-century.

So this is not so much a response to Dances with Wolves (1990) or anything of the like, as a re-working of Wilkie Collins’s 1860 serial novel The Woman in White, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). In both narratives, especially the latter, the plight of women in the 19th century is explored from the perspective of the (mis)diagnosis of psychiatric conditions in order to control their behaviour and prevent them from supposedly harming themselves, but what that actually entails is control of their property and identity. The ‘wife’ in Gilman’s semi-autobiographical story is in a similar predicament to the women in Lightning’s film who are compelled to try and prove their sanity. It's a way of silencing them and preventing their exposure of abuse and injustice.

The interlacing storyline employed by Lightning is handled subtly and the characters are naturalistic and not glamorised. Particularly good is Adam Beach as Johnny, the law enforcement officer on the Reservation who has ambitions to join the FBI, but must endure the casual discrimination from coordinators and supervisors of his resources that prevents him from doing the best job he can. However, he is as much a victim of the medical and spiritual authorities who convince him of his fiancée’s delusional state of mind.

Strong female roles are a refreshing change; with Irene (Rose Berens) as central protagonist who is seemingly afflicted by an inherited strain of insanity – which actually amounts to her desire (like that of her mother and aunts) to speak the truth. Tantoo Cardinal as Auntie Apple is also notable, as is Lightning herself as Aunt Rain. But interestingly, it's Bradley Cooper as Luke who appears in most of the publicity connected to the DVD release. Again, this seems like a compromise that has been forced upon the filmmaker, to enable this film to reach the wider audience it deserves. Cooper’s name above the title? Well, it would be like putting Cardinal’s name above the title in Dances with Wolves for her role as Black Shawl. Whilst undeniably in the film she was by no means the star. The same has to be said for Cooper in American Evil. The starring roles belong to Berens and Beach.

We’ve certainly come a long way in cinematic terms, but there is still a way to go. Lightning will help take us there.







The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pay Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.