The family film Shiloh slipped unheralded into town and is likely to slip back out quickly, since, peculiarly, it's also being released on video this week. In one medium or the other, it's worth catching--it being one of the few current movies for kids that doesn't seem engineered to make them dumber.
This low-budget but well-produced indie, based on a novel by Phyllis Reynolds Taylor, is not the sort of kid flick, like The Wizard of Oz or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Star Wars, that fills children with giddy delight. But it's luminously pretty to look at, and it concerns two themes that hit kids where they live: cruelty to animals, and the terrifying mismatch of children against unjust adults.
The title character of Shiloh is a bright-eyed little beagle pup (played by "Frannie"). We first meet Shiloh as a hunting-dog-in-training, toddling along beside Jud (Scott Wilson), a redneck who hunts game for a living in rural Virginia. Within the next few frames, Jud whacks the dog in the head with his rifle butt, then kicks him for failing to retrieve a raccoon he's just shot. The next day, the pup is found hiding under a bridge by local kid Marty (Blake Heron); it's love at first sight.
Naturally, Marty wants to keep Shiloh, but he can guess where the animal got the cut on his head, and he wants to protect him from further abuse. Marty's decent, loving, but hard-assed father (Michael Moriarty) insists the dog be returned to Jud--he wants the kid to learn respect for the law, and he also claims that the family can't afford a pet, having remortgaged the house to take care of a sick grandma.
It's Marty's response to this unenviable plight that's so unusual for the genre. In the usual wholesome family film, count on Marty to run off with the dog and get into peril. The father, having learned the error of his ways, would rush to the rescue. But Shiloh is about learning maturity from adversity. Marty thinks ahead, he exercises diplomacy, and draws carefully on the help of allies like his sensible mother (Ann Dowd) and the town doctor (Rod Steiger). And, when all else fails, he stands his ground with courage.
This sober approach makes the film admirable, but it's also what makes it a bit slow at times. Director Dale Rosenbloom refuses stooping either to cheap melodramatic jolts or pandering, the mainstays of so many other kid films, and his occasional attempts at humor and lightheartedness are pitifully wan. This story's issues are real, and the film is better off when it focuses on them. Rosenbloom seems to realize this.
Heron is impressive as the truehearted Marty. Jud is in the mold of all those kid-movie villains kids love to despise--cruel, intractable and spiteful: He tries to keep Shiloh from Marty even after the dog has proved useless as a hunter. Yet Wilson's performance keeps Jud in the realm of the human. This dull-souled cracker learned his meanness from his father's belt, and he's too wretched even to realize how wretched he is.
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Besides, the film makes it clear that Jud is only part of the problem. Marty's father, too, with his obstinate belief in neighborly reserve above all, is a maddening obstacle. The well-cast Moriarty wears a tight little smile that looks like smugness but is probably really insecurity. It's a touching, honest turn.
Steiger's big moment is a monologue about the sacrifices that love demands. He begins it beautifully, but in the end, he can't resist Steigerizing it. He lapses into those weird, hammy, overemphatic inflections designed to show that he's a great actor--which he surely is, when he's not acting like this.
The violence toward the dog (all simulated, of course; the end credits bear the Humane Society's seal of approval) may concern parents of younger children. It made me wince several times. But the power of such scenes to traumatize shouldn't be overrated. There seems to be a current belief that children should be protected from depictions of real-life evil and cruelty in art--as if children were always protected from evil and cruelty in real life. Shiloh is an admittedly uncompromising exploration of these themes. But it's also a responsible and instructive one.
Directed by Dale Rosenbloom.