With its pedestrian direction, variable performances and perfunctory dialogue, this is more supernatural soap opera than probing chiller.
For her directorial debut, actress Georgina Lightning chose a heartfelt personal project, dedicated it to her late father's memory and designed it to draw attention to a recent but largely forgotten aspect of America's twentieth century history.
As some text at the film's end reveals, until as late as the mid-1970s, the US and Canadian governments made it mandatory for Native American children to attend boarding schools where they were not allowed to maintain their own languages and cultural traditions and often suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their Christian guardians.
It was a state-endorsed programme of deracination that has wrought deep, lasting damage upon the indigenous community's cultural identity. It's a story of such power that it practically demands to be told. Maybe, though, not quite the way that Lightning tells it.
In Penmore, Minnesota, Rain (Lightning) is having disturbing dreams that are even entering her waking life. She worries that she may have inherited the mental illness of her institutionalised and catatonic mother Irene (Rose Berens). Meanwhile Luke (Bradley Cooper), a government official sent from Minneapolis to investigate an earthquake near the old abandoned boarding school, also experiences a strange apparition from his past. As Luke researches the local community and its history, Rain's visions lead her to a criminal conspiracy by the local Catholic priest (Steve Yoakum) and mayor (Chris Mulkey) to cover up what took place in the school decades ago.
The ghost story has always lent itself to the exploration of buried skeletons, hidden secrets and lost histories, but in choosing this narrative form over, say, a documentary, Lightning and her co-writer Christina K Walker have done a disservice to their weighty themes. For with its pedestrian direction, variable performances and perfunctory dialogue, this is more supernatural soap opera than probing chiller and its bland look, combined with its characters' regular habit of turning into expository mouthpieces, lends the film the undeniable feel of a movie-of-the-week special.
That is not to take away from Lightning's admirable desire to grind the axe on cultural genocide before finally burying the hatchet, but this material, sadly, deserves better if it is not to remain buried out of sight forever.
And buried it has been. For Older Than America was in fact already doing the festival rounds back in 2008, and has only now resurfaced with its new, more generic title, American Evil, as a result, one suspects, of the rising profile of Bradley Cooper. Now Cooper's name and face are alone featured on a publicity poster whose iconography (blood, crows, J-horror-style long-haired female spectre ) and tagline ("an ancient horror has returned") all misleadingly point to an exercise in pure genre.
This seems, ironically enough, another form of deracination, as the marketing places Cooper (whose white character is relatively marginal to this story of Native American experience) at the centre while carefully effacing any overt reference to the film's true subject. Of course, anyone who goes to this expecting a full-blown horror film is in for a big surprise, while even those who know exactly what American Evil is about are likely to be disappointed. Which is a great pity.
Sounds like bad horror.
Nope, it's bad supernatural drama.
A subject this serious merits a much better treatment.