Without drawing too much attention to itself, Showtime’s new film, The Outsider, has a quiet power. It is a morality tale set in the Western genre, centering around an Amish-like sect who have settled in the Montana Valley, hoping to be free from religious persecution while they homestead the land as sheepherders. The “Plain People,” as they wish to be known, keep to themselves and work hard. They are so devout that even music is prohibited, except in the halls of their house of worship. To listen to it otherwise would invite the devil into one’s heart.
As the film opens, Ben and Rebecca Yoder are shown to be a loving couple, brought even closer still by their nine-year-old son Benjo. Their lives are unadorned but rich in bonds, beliefs, and expression. In time, their tranquility begins to deteriorate as the neighboring townspeople begin an all-out effort to drive their religious community from what they consider to be their land. When Ben refuses to stand down in the face of intimidation from the townspeople’s henchmen, they murder him in cold blood, widowing Rebecca. Her community rallies around her and offers succor in her time of need, but they have no strategy to defend their lands and way of life in the face of imminent threat—apart from turning the other cheek. Despite her religious fastidiousness, Rebecca is a spitfire. She would rather die before surrendering her home and hearth.
This being a Western, a stranger comes to town. He appears in the near distance and promptly collapses at Rebecca’s feet, near death. Rebecca, to the disapproval of the elders, nurses him back to health. Once he regains consciousness, she learns that he is a shootist; they could not be more unalike. Out of gratitude he becomes the family’s protector, despite a violent manner that is anathema to the Plain way of living. While Watts is utterly grounded in this role, her co-star Tim Daley (best known for TV roles on Wings and The Fugitive) is less than menacing as mercenary Johnny Gault.
Still, the tale is infectious. Rebecca is urged to give the stranger his walking papers and to accept the hand of Noah Weaver, himself a widower. But she can’t deny her feelings for John Gault; they are so urgently drawn to one another that she allows herself to be seduced. Caught in flagrante delecto, Rebecca must appear in front of her community, confess and ask for their forgiveness.
While this psycho-sexual-spiritual drama plays out, Fergus Hunter and his men move in for the kill – bemused that one of their ilk has taken up the cause of the Plain People. The final confrontation has elements inspired from High Noon; there is even a bit of Ennio Morricone-inflected spaghetti western theme music during these moments. But unlike the Westerns of old, the good guy wears a black hat and it is the townspeople who are trying to oppress the settlers, rather than “the outsiders” trying to encroach upon their way of life.
Director Randa Haines, best know for Children of a Lesser God and the incest telefilm, Something About Amelia, has a soft touch that, while unusual to the genre, is appropriate for this material. She makes a devout 19th century woman a heroine, rather than a bit player in a land dispute gone awry. While the script is workmanlike, it is the casting of Naomi Watts as Rebecca Yoder that makes the film a singular affair. She anchors Outsider with grace and determination, and is given an able assist by the Brothers Carradine, David and Keith.
Haines has assembled a tightly knit crew, all working towards making this film as understated as Rebecca Yoder herself. The cinematography possesses dignity and clarity, while Todd Boekelheide’s score is filled with the “found sounds” that Rebecca Yoder hears in her head during moments of bliss, and which she suspects, once she has been banned from her Church, was the voice of God.
While the Plain People maintain that “Before the head of the woman, is the man,” Rebecca Yoder holds fast to her beliefs, while finding the strength to lead and to place her trust in another. Together they recombine as Outsiders anew and create a legacy of steadfastness and a vision for the future.
– Jerry Weinstein