Review: Copperhead (2013)


Cast: , ,
Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
Country: USA
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here

Editor’s Notes: Copperhead is now playing. Check your local listings for showtimes.

Copperhead (2013) is Ronald Maxwell’s latest love letter to the Civil War. It’s his third film in 20 years, after the masterful Gettysburg (1993) and the abysmal Gods and Generals (2003), wherein the only good decision he made was to have Bob Dylan write an original song for…Copperhead didn’t even have that going for it.

That’s it, really. That’s the whole story. There is almost no plot whatsoever…

copper1The film centers on two families in an upstate New York town around the beginning of the Civil War. The Beech family, led by Abner (The Rocketeer’s Billy Campbell), are Democrats and (back when Republicans were the liberals and Democrats were conservatives) and don’t believe in the war. Abner doesn’t believe slavery is right, but also doesn’t think war is the way to end it. This puts his family against popular opinion of the town, seemingly headed by JeeHagadorn (Angus Macfayden, who played Robert the Bruce in Braveheart).

Jeff Beech (Casey Brown) and Esther Hagadorn (Lucy Boynton) are in love, despite their father’s wishes, creating a sort of Romeo and Juliet situation. The difference is that these two fathers don’t mind the open courting so much as they forbid actual marriage.

That’s it, really. That’s the whole story. There is almost no plot whatsoever, except when Jeff decides to join up and fight for the Union and Esther’s brother Ni (Augustus Prew) leaves to go looking for him after he’s gone missing according to the daily casualty listing, but that’s not even a plot because we don’t follow Ni, he just leaves and eventually comes back with Jeff.

The bulk of this unfocused film centers on how the abolitionists treat the anti-abolitionists. There are fights, a general shutting out of the Beeches from the community all because they have a different political ideology. Abner isn’t a secessionist; he just doesn’t believe in war and therefore doesn’t support the party that is pressing the war forward. He thinks Lincoln should have let the south go without a fight. So, in having this opinion, he’s opened up to violence (his house gets burned down) and shunning from most of the rest of the town. Oh, and the copperhead of the title refers to Democrats and Confederate sympathizers that are in the North, presumably called this because they are seen as poisonous to the Union. This term is used as an epithet to describe the Beeches and their hired help on their farm throughout the middle and end of the film.

There is really little else going on here. What I found difficult to get behind, ultimately, is that the film was asking me to sympathize with a character I disagreed with while it painted those I did agree with as monsters. The abolitionists act terribly to the Beech family, for no real reason other than to get us on the Beech’s side, and it really didn’t work for me. There was no one to root for, really. Sometimes, that’s the point of a film, to create characters that are unredeemable and you don’t want to see succeed and you can’t root for anyone because everyone is a bad person but this isn’t one of those films. Maxwell and writer Bill Kauffman have failed in making sympathetic characters in the Beeches because they are ultimately on the wrong side of history.

On top of that, the whole film looks like it was made for TV. The lighting looks like it should have been a widescreen presentation in several parts on the History Channel and maybe it would have been acceptable there, broken up by commercials. The staging was awful and the dialogue was so clunky that even when Peter Fonda showed up in a minor role, he had trouble making it sound good. Kauffman tried for a somewhat genuine dialect and ultimately failed because it wasn’t consistent throughout and the actors stumbled over it like tripwire in a battlefield.

It’s an episodic mess that just doesn’t generate any feelings at all other than the joyous one when the credits roll.

copper2This attempt to make a ‘homefront’ story for the Civil War was a poor one at best. It was Gone With the Wind (1939) light and pales in comparison (so much so that this film isn’t even visible when put next to that magnificent, timeless masterpiece). We are supposed to understand what it was like in the towns where the battles weren’t taking place and all we get is villainy and hatred targeted randomly. Yes, it’s an allegory for the ‘brother against brother’ line that the Civil War is always described as being and it attempts to dramatize that, but it just doesn’t work here because neither side is defined well enough to either hate both sides, like both sides, or like one and hate the other. It’s an episodic mess that just doesn’t generate any feelings at all other than the joyous one when the credits roll.

The film also gets pretty preachy throughout, and at the end when it is at its preachyist is when it manages to have its only genuine moment. Ni is eulogizing his father and speaks about the breakdown of ‘Love thy neighbor’ in the town. Prew pours everything he has into this last speech, which is the last bit of dialogue in the film, and manages to make a good moment out of it. It’s tremendously sad that it takes nearly two hours for anything of worth to come from the film, but at least something does.

Copperhead (2013) isn’t even bad because of how poorly it’s made (which it is), it’s bad because of how unfocused and boring it is. No character is worth caring about and no actor does a particularly good job at making a character out of what little there is outside of types that are on the page. Maxwell shows no visual flair or any interest in the film at all and that translates to a leaden mishmash that comes from nowhere and leads us nowhere. It’s like being trapped on a baggage conveyor belt, constantly going around and around and never getting anywhere.

35/100 ~ AWFUL. Copperhead (2013) isn’t even bad because of how poorly it’s made (which it is), it’s bad because of how unfocused and boring it is.

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Doug Heller

Sr. Staff Film Critic
I believe film occupies a rare place as art, entertainment, historical records and pure joy. I love all films, good and bad, from every time period with an affinity to Classical Hollywood in general, but samurai, sci-fi and noir specifically. My BA is in Film Studies from Pitt and my MA is in Education. My goal is to be able to ignite a love of film in others that is similar to my own.

Latest posts by Doug Heller (see all)

  • Scott

    Wow what a horrible review. I’m sorry you have the attention span of a two year old but I guess that should be expected for someone who can only watch spiderman.

  • Doug Heller

    I’m sorry if you enjoyed the picture, it was flat and uninteresting to me. I not only have a longer attention span than a 2 year old, but also don’t take to insulting people who disagree with me. Thanks for the discourse.

  • Kyle Burton

    That sounds like a promotion! “Doug Heller: Sr. Spidey Content Editor.”

  • Doug Heller

    Sounds fun and a guaranteed job with all those sequels planned out to 2017 or something like that.

  • Sharon Ballon

    I don’t get you guys. Isn’t a review…one person’s opinion. It’s up to the individual to make up their own mind & decide for themselves whether to watch the movie or not.

  • Doug Heller

    Precisely, it’s all subjective. I certainly respect his opinion, I just disagree with it. I didn’t understand the insulting nature of the comment, and don’t really feel insults are constructive either to defending one’s own position or questioning someone else’s. I’m glad he liked it, because I sure didn’t.