DIRECTED BY: Jeff Daniels
FEATURING: Jeff Daniels, Harve Presnell, Joey Albright, Wayne David Parker, Randall Godwin, Kimberly Guerrero
PLOT: 42-year old Rueben must bag a buck during this year’s deer season or he’ll become
the oldest male in the history of the Soady family never to have done so; with the help of a potion supplied by his Native American wife, he encounters strange supernatural forces that help him in his quest.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Escanaba is unique, at least: it’s got an interesting subject (the deer hunting subculture in Upper Michigan), lots of local color, and evil spirits (or UFOs, or God) haunting the woods. Jeff Daniels has a lot of ideas here, but most of them fail: the crude quirk and sporadic weirdness never gels into something either meaningful or mirthful. It ends up as a regional indie curiosity. Escanaba does have its share of dedicated fans (mostly Michiganders)—must be a Yooper thing, eh?
COMMENTS: The name Escanaba in da Moonlight sounds pretty cool, but doesn’t really fit the film—almost none of the action takes place in the town of Escanaba, and what little that does happens in the glare of the sun. There’s plenty of moonlight, but it all falls well outside the town’s borders. That’s pretty much the story of the movie, which puts things in just because they seemed cool at the time, without paying attention to whether they fit or not. The movie knows where its soul is—holed up in the woods of the Upper Peninsula in a shack stocked with of maple whiskey and Leinenkugels, pronouncing its “th”‘s as “d”‘s, worried whether this will be the year middle-aged Rueben Soady finally shoots a deer. It’s a recipe for a low-key male bonding comedy, but Escanaba loses its way when it expands beyond deer camp and goes cosmic. Rueben is determined to break his curse before he becomes the record holder for oldest buckless Soady male, so he drinks a potion brewed by his mystically-attuned Indian wife and things get a bit weird. Rueben and his camp pals—crusty but supportive dad, superstitious brother, and a family friend named “da Jimmer” who’s had a speech defect ever since he was abducted by an alien—chug down the brew and endure a night that’s half vision quest, half mushroom trip, with a touch of demonic possession and religious ecstasy thrown in for good measure. They endure the flashing lights of UFOs, denatured whiskey, impossible euchre hands, a DNR ranger who’s just seen God, anxiety dreams, possession, epic flatulence, and a “bearwalk,” an evil spirit from Algonquin folklore. The Soadys and their guests aren’t nearly as freaked out by these events as folks from under da Bridge would be; no matter how unsettling the paranormal events should be, the tone remains consistently stuck on coarse quirk, with jokes revolving around the supposed magical properties of jars of porcupine urine and the humiliation of accidentally drinking a moose testicle. The movie’s message seems to be that in order to self-actualize and shoot a deer, it’s necessary to believe in something—anything—and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s aliens, ancient spirits, God, or the power of love. That’s why all the supernatural occurrences that afflict the cabin are so damnably arbitrary; the trials Rueben goes through in that long night of the soul aren’t tightly tied to his psychological journey, and anyway, helpful spirits will show up at the end to solve his problem in about two minutes. The unique Upper Peninsula flavor, deer-hunting rituals and likable rustic characters give Escanaba a lift, but the weirdness doesn’t work for the film, the comedy is gutshot and the spiritual triumph is lame.
Jeff Daniels, who grew up in Lower Michigan, not only starred, but also directed and scripted Escanaba, from his own play. In the public mind, Daniels’ Golden Globe for The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) has long been overshadowed by the scene where he suffers sudden and severe colonic distress in Dumb and Dumber (1994).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Wycuff,” who called it “defiantly weird” but hedged with “It probably wont make the list but it’s at least worth a review and an honorable mention.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)