MRR Review: "Copperhead"

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An Upstate New York family is torn apart during the American Civil War.
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MRR Review: "Copperhead"

-- Rating: PG-13 (an unsettling sequence)
Length: 120 minutes
Release Date: June 28, 2013
Directed by: Ronald F. Maxwell
Genre: Drama

"Copperhead" is set in the 1860s right before and leading up to the Civil War, when tensions were high and opinions could get people killed. That doesn't stop upstate New York farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell) from being very much against both slavery and the war and openly arguing with his friends about it. Though his fellow Northerners are also largely against slavery, most of them at least outwardly supported the war. Beech's antiwar stance garners him the unwanted attention of his neighbors, particularly Jee Hagadorn (Angus MacFadyen).

Hagadorn and many in this otherwise quiet community decide that Beech must either change his opinion or be punished for it. This seems like a very extreme outlook, but tensions are running high and a flurry of anger has taken the place of rational thought for many Americans who are nervous about loved ones on the battlefield and what happens if their side loses. To make matters worse for the embattled Beech, his son Jeff (Casey Brown) has fallen for local schoolteacher Esther (Lucy Boynton), who just happens to be Hagadorn's daughter. Like her father, she supports the war, and she convinces Jeff that the war is right and just.

Jeff is torn between supporting his father and agreeing with the woman he loves. Despite his father's feelings, he enlists in the army and is sent to war. When Beech later gets word that Jeff has gone missing in action, Hagadorn suspects that Jeff did so because of his father. Hagadorn even accuses Beech and Jeff of plotting for him to run away from battle, which would make him a traitor. With so many in the area supporting the war, it isn't long before Hagadorn gets enough townspeople to support his idea to try Beech in court. The problem is, so many are threatening Beech and his family with violence that he can only stand trial if he and his homestead survive the threats. Even if he survives, it may be too late to mend all the broken fences the war has caused in what used to be a tight-knit community.

Many movies set during the Civil War focus on soldiers and only give a cursory glance toward the families those soldiers leave behind. "Copperhead" bucks that trend to focus on the heightened emotions that helped lead to the war and the uncertainty that followed. Neighbors who were once friendly now look upon each other with suspicion, and people who were once cordial might burn each other's houses down. This type of daily chaos and the struggle to adjust to it and survive was well depicted in the 1980s miniseries "North and South," though the series did sometimes focus on the actual war. "Copperhead" feels like an updated version of that series, but it contains no real violence except for one short scene. It's a movie about the background of a war with no gore or bloodshed but plenty of high drama.

Director Ronald F. Maxwell is no stranger to stories of the Civil War, having helmed "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals" previously. His obviously vast knowledge of the period serves him well in "Copperhead" despite the changed focus. His previous efforts focused on battles and bloodshed or the men behind the battles. In "Copperhead," the real war that Maxwell is focusing on his the war at home, the behind-the-scenes battles taking place on a daily basis for the families who stayed behind while the men went off to war. It is a striking contrast to the director's previous two movies, yet he makes the change seem effortless. It is a fitting close to what could arguably be referred to as a trilogy, considering the subject matter. The vast majority of films set during the Civil War take place on the battlefield, but Maxwell hasn't forgotten that some of the biggest struggles of the war may have taken place away from the battlefield.

Costumes and set decoration are always heavily scrutinized in period pieces. Without careful attention to both, the film can feel a bit bogus, which takes away from its appeal. "Copperhead" has paid meticulous attention to costumes and decoration, making the transition from the modern day to the 1860s nearly effortless for the audience. Again, director Maxwell's knowledge of the period probably helps, but big props must be given to Kate Rose, who did the costuming. The carefully crafted script, knowledgeable director, and perfect costuming make "Copperhead" a great entry into the pantheon of Civil War movies.

Rating: 3 out of 5