Diamonds in the Rough (DitR, /dɪ’tər/) takes some of the most derided, divisive, controversial, financially catastrophic, and meme-worthy movies and tries to find the silver lining. Bad movies don’t always start as bad ideas, and flops aren’t always flop-worthy. DitR seeks to find the good within the bad, because the world could use some positivity. And when all else fails, making fun of bad movies is oh-so satisfying.
In this installment, we look at The Oregonian from director Calvin Lee Reeder (The Procedure). [Caution: Spoilers Ahead]
- Rotten Tomatoes: 44% (9 reviews)
- Metacritic: 46 (4 reviews)
- IMDb: 4.2/10 (617 ratings)
- Letterboxd: 2.7/5 (436 ratings)
Calvin Lee Reader made the fart movie. Two of them, as a matter of fact. Perhaps this is worth mentioning. I dunno.
The second most popular review for The Oregonian on Letterboxd is where this article gets its title. The user who goes only by “Nicolas” declares, in all-caps text, that The Oregonian is an “unheralded and unknown masterpiece.” It is a 4.5-star review, which goes on to laud the film for being “unconventional, impressionistic” and a “visceral experience.”
Critical reception to the film was less ecstatic. Jeanette Catsoulis at The New York Times claims the film “wears out its welcome within 30 minutes. Yet the film’s casual embrace of dream logic … and impressive sound design linger.” And Chuck Wilson at The Village Voice wrote, “Reeder has stated that he intends for The Oregonian to be ‘an art film’ and not the horror movie it appears to be … but he’s not above upping the gross-out factor in the final reel or creating scream-filled aural landscapes so piercing that one’s spine ripples. Artfully.”
What lingers with me, here as I write this, is this idea of The Oregonian as art film and not as horror movie. For one, Wilson’s quote implies a clear delineation between “art film” and horror that I don’t think is accurate. The either-or mentality that genre implies low art, and therefore so-called “art-house” films cannot be genre films, is a limiting perspective. But more importantly, this idea of depicting horror for the sake of making a non-horror movie starts to get at what Reeder may have been thinking when he conceived the film.
The Oregonian is an experimental, surreal piece. It is certainly filled with horror iconography, and I personally would be hard-pressed to call it anything other than an experimental horror film. However, I have a potential reading of the film that may begin the process of sussing out the “art film” at the heart of the horror.
Before I begin, though, I would like to be transparent about my own critical response to The Oregonian.
The film tells the story of a woman (Lindsay Pulsipher) who (appears to) live and work at a horse corral/farm with her husband (boyfriend?) Herb (Robert Longstreet). Herb begins the film incapacitated in the middle of the farmland, bottle in hand. The woman takes the bottle and ventures off into the woods. She somehow finds herself a victim of a car wreck, and, bloodied, she wanders off down the street in search for help. What follows is a series of nightmarish accounts which have little connection to reality.
The film’s surreal elements do provide a certain level of unease and tension which are, in moments, effective. The first time we see the mysterious figure in the green costume (the poster for the film makes it look like it is a costume of a frog, but by the time we see it in the film it has been mangled to the point where its species is unclear), the camera holds on the motionless body over and over again. With the surreal story world already established, this introduction of the frog could be resolved in any number of ways. It is an unpredictable scenario from which tension arises. Now, how this scene does culminate was less satisfying to me than the buildup, and this is a good example of my experience watching the film.
Surrealism and horror can be an effective pair. The surreal puts you off balance, because the rules of nature rarely apply. Anything can happen. Surrealism and horror can also come off as a cheap trick. Eliminating the laws of nature can create tension which is let down by continuous unexpected revelations. There are diminishing returns to a woman popping into frame with creepy smiles and no dialogue. The Oregonian builds up tension that fizzles out long before the 80-minute mark.
There is some engaging imagery in the film, as well as a number of intriguing stylistic choices. I enjoy how the first few scenes following the woman’s car accident takes a subjective approach to the camera, even when it is outside of the woman’s POV. This is to say, the camera will slip out of focus as if her vision has been blurred, perhaps as a side effect of a concussion sustained in the accident. The handheld camera will severely wobble as it follows behind her limping gait. These are creative choices which sadly fade away as the film progresses.
The Oregonian has a number of elements to it that I like, even if the overall experience was deflating. And I can see glimmers of a coherent narrative bubbling out of the experimental images. Having only seen the film once, I cannot say I am extremely confident in the reading I am about to outline, but it helped me make sense of some of the surrealim. The film has a puzzle film element to it, in that its horror iconography and car accident read more symbolic than anything else (hence, perhaps, Reeder’s assertion that this is more of an art film than a horror film).
This is just one possible reading, but The Oregonian reads to me as a film about the trauma women can be subjected to in patriarchal society. I couldn’t tell you how the frog suit factors in, but there is other imagery in the film that supports this reading. In what little literal story the film provides, we see that the protagonist’s partner is an abusive alcoholic and that she views her time on the farm with him as being like a prison.
In one of the most disturbing sequences in the film, the “Oregonian” woman witnesses her own dead body (if not dead, mortally injured) being sexually violated by an unnamed man. After witnessing this postmortem attack, she starts bleeding bile-colored blood from her mouth. Visibly in pain (see: “bile-colored blood from her mouth”), she begins laughing alongside the group of women who once haunted her. Then, it cuts to a a flashback of her husband berating her and grabbing at his crotch, intimating that he poses a similar threat of violence to that of the assaulter. She proceeds to brutally beat her necrophiliac assailant to death.
Perhaps this episode is a psychological manifestation of PTSD, brought on following her murder of her partner. If my memory serves me right, we never see Herb get up from what initially appears to be an intoxicated stupor. Perhaps the Oregonian is using the man’s unconscious state as a time where she can escape, an escape which leads to a car accident, which leads to a traumatic brain injury, which leads to a random assortment of surreal visions. Or maybe she has killed her abuser, perhaps in the flashback scene we see later, in an act of self-defense. We first see glimpses of her blood-soaked body before the car accident occurs. Perhaps it is not her blood.
In this reading, the surreal elements of the film are a result of deep psychological trauma which are coming to the fore following her act of violence against Herb. The film is full of images of women in distress (think: the screaming woman in white) and images of abjection related to the phallus (I won’t go into detail on this one).
Also of note is the use of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation march, both after the protagonist leaves Herb’s body behind and after she succeeds in killing her attacker. What is a “graduation” from her time on the farm, an emancipation from Herb’s abuse, is symbolically re-enacted in the death of her attacker. The film’s foray into the experimental is a mental reckoning with the character’s freedom and what she had to do to achieve it.
Listen, I don’t like being the type of critic who thinks that they have “cracked the code” to an abstract movie. I don’t claim to have the “right” reading to this film. This is just the narrative that I teased out as the final act started ramping up to a climax. I’m not here trying to write an article with a title like “The Oregonian Ending Explained.” Last time I tried that little gimmick (with my tongue in cheek, mind you) it didn’t go over so well. My Diamonds in the Rough titles are click-baity enough as it is.
All I want to do is give the divisive The Oregonian the benefit of the doubt. It is abstract and abject, and it is almost as thin on plot as it is in dialogue (I just might have loved it had it been a silent film). That I could extract a full narrative arc out of the experimental elements of this film is more than I can say about other films in the Diamonds in the Rough series. I’m not going to claim that my reading is what Reeder was going for; he could very easily have been going for something completely different. But me being able to dissect the film in some manner afforded me a level of enjoyment that simply watching a series of surreal scenes would not have given me.
So is The Oregonian an unheralded, unknown masterpiece? Personally, I don’t think so. Unheralded? Perhaps. Unknown? Relatively, yes. But the film is missing a number of parts for me which would constitute it a masterpiece. In a Sundance press interview, Reeder made it clear that his highest aspiration for the film would for it to succeed as a midnight movie. He mentions that the gold standards for the midnight movie are Eraserhead and El Topo. I don’t find The Oregonian to be at the same artistic level as those two films, but I would agree that the midnight movie environment is pretty perfect for this film. There are certainly people who would enjoy this film who run in the midnight movie crowd.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)