Set in a small town in New York’s Mohawk Valley, October Country portrays the bleak life of co-director Donal Mosher’s family from one Halloween to the next. As leaves blow through a cemetery in the opening shot, Dottie (the Mosher matriarch) tells us that strong winds interrupted both of her parents’ funerals, preventing the minister from finishing the sermon each time. Beginning and ending the film during this season of loss, Palmieri and Mosher fix their subjects in a grim cycle as they narrate stories of domestic abuse, poverty, sickness, and war. As the title grandly suggests, there’s no escape: this little town is insular enough to exist independently of the nation for which its men kill and die.
With its intimate interviews and impressionistic shots of the surroundings, October Country aims to reveal a hidden and haunted village overlooked by the global village, a place stuck on the receiving end of the US’s image regime. So here is your new reality TV show, a far cry from the O.C. you know. You might have seen teen pregnancy on MTV, but make no mistake: these are the authentic humans who don’t get a voice in today’s celebrity culture, who deserve to be heard. Ostensibly more natural for its portraits of trees and icicles and its blandly atmospheric solo guitar score, October Country is less overtly cynical than most reality TV, but it’s no less contrived.
The film is dedicated to the Mosher family, an embattled cast of blood relations (plus a foster child named Chris) held together by the warm and relatively stable Dottie. Dottie’s husband Don is a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, whose arthritic sister Denise identifies as both a witch and a “walking pharmacy.” Don and Dottie have a daughter, Donna, who suffered a series of abusive relationships and gave birth to Daneal and Desi. Following her mother’s footprints, Daneal dated an abusive man and ended up with a daughter of her own before she graduated from high school.
Dottie frames the film with a harrowing concept of the “cycle,” defining the word as she lists the abusers who have entered the Moshers’ life and laments that daughters never listen to their mothers. Still, at age 11, Desi remains a great hope for the family; she displays a mature awareness of her mother and sister’s struggles and a genuine desire to transcend family patterns. Desi is witty, playful, and confident, gleefully boasting about both her intelligence and the damage she can inflict upon it with TV. Palmieri and Mosher are eager to emphasize this latter point. In a segment of the film concerning the local gun company and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Desi is seen playing a violent first-person video game. “No, I don’t think about the war… nobody’s ever doing anything,” she says blankly as her character murders another on-screen. The camera zooms in on her eye and flashes back to the TV screen: “…except killing each other.”
The scene is typical of how the directors belabor, but never illuminate, the ways in which violence enters the lives of working-class Americans and remains with them. Earlier in the film, Don recounts switching careers from making bolts at the gun company to becoming a cop. His first assignment was a suicide. Rather than staying with Don as he recounts this traumatic experience — even if the withdrawn vet sat there somber and silent, this might be instructive — leaves fill the screen and a skeleton shakes on someone’s front porch. Depression is stylized as another environmental condition in a politely romantic Appalachian landscape. Forgive me for preferring the repulsive onslaught of reality TV, but at least it shakes you to anger. October Country depicts tragic social ills as universal as the Wal-Marts that circumscribe them, with about as much authenticity as the supercenter itself.