'Redemption Trail': Film Review

Despite some fine performances, this slow-moving drama fails to live up to its potential.

Lisa Gay Hamilton and Lily Rabe play women struggling to overcome past traumas in Britta Sjogren's Northern California-set drama.

Strong performances by Lily Rabe and Lisa Gay Hamilton aren’t quite enough to redeem Redemption Trail, director/screenwriter Britta Sjogren’s slow-moving drama about two troubled women dealing with fateful incidents in their pasts. Although gorgeously photographed in a variety of scenic Northern California locations, this film, which won the Audience Award at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, suffers from its stilted narrative and clunky execution.

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Hamilton plays Tess, the reclusive manager of a Sonoma vineyard whose contradictory personality is immediately evident from the opening scenes in which she’s seen both meditating serenely on a rock and harshly confronting a pair of trespassers with a loaded shotgun. It’s soon revealed that Tess, who lives off the grid, is the daughter of a murdered Black Panther revolutionary and is still on parole after serving a prison sentence for murder.

We’re alternately introduced to prosperous Oakland couple David (Hamish Linklater) and Anna (Rabe), a Berkeley college professor and doctor, respectively, and their adorable eight-year-old daughter, Ruby (Asta Sjogren-Uyehara). The couple’s blissful domestic life, depicted in the film’s slow first half-hour, is rudely shattered by Ruby’s death from a horse riding accident.

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The principal female characters’ lives merge some time later when Tess comes upon an unconscious Anna, who has unsuccessfully tried to hang herself, in the vineyard. Despite her innate distrust of the authorities, Tess incongruously agrees to shelter the grief-stricken stranger, keeping her hidden even when her frantic husband shows up in the area with an armful of “Missing” posters. Even more incongruously, Anna immediately seems to abandon her suicidal impulses despite coming upon Tess’ loaded handgun.

Things become further complicated with the arrival of John (Jake Weber), Tess’ rich British employer and long-distance lover, and his young daughter Juliet (Juliette Stubbs). John soon becomes aware of Anna’s true identity and is put uncomfortably in the middle when David suddenly shows up demanding to see his wife.

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Although the story would seem to hinge on Tess and Anna helping each other overcome their past traumas, this aspect is left curiously undeveloped in Sjogren’s screenplay, which instead concentrates on such subplots as John’s seeking a deeper romantic commitment from Tess and a violent incident involving her Spanish female employees and some local bad guys.

Languorously paced and overly dependent on a series of awkwardly inserted and overly stylized flashbacks and dream sequences, the film never quite lives up to its dramatic potential. Neither the sketchy narrative nor the interpersonal dynamics are particularly believable, with the result that the actors are forced to try awfully hard to fill in the emotional blanks. To their credit, they largely succeed, with Hamilton delivering a particularly impressive, quietly restrained performance that never strikes any overly obvious notes and Rabe, Linklater and Weber proving equally effective at conveying their characters’ quiet anguish. But despite their fine efforts, Redemption Trail seems to lead to nowhere in particular.

Production: Dire Wolf
Cast: Lily Rabe, LisaGay Hamilton, Hamish Linklater, Jake Weber, Asta Sjogren-Uyehara, Juliette Stubbs, Stephanie Diaz, Beth Lisick
Director/screenwriter: Britta Sjogren
Producers: Britta Sjogren, Soumyaa Kapil Behrens
Executive producers: Cathy Greenwold, Lisa Naito, Mary Stubbs, Tom Stubbs, Scott Verges
Director of photography: Bradley Sellers
Editors: Christopher Much, Michael Goodier
Production designer: Gillian Servais
Costume designers: Valerie Lida, Tiffany Scott
Composer: Mark Orton
No rating, 90 minutes