"Inspired by true events" in the early 1900s, as this somber Portland indie declares, How the Fire Fell begins with an itinerant preacher (Joe Haege) humbly thanking parishioners for their ears—on a Saturday, in a borrowed church—then driving them away with his Pentecostal fervor. Wandering through the woods, he finds a more impressionable flock—six members of the large Hurt family, whose patriarch watches in silent disapproval. Soon a cult forms around the preacher, and naked bonfire-dancing erupts in the woods. He will sire a new Christ, he tells the women, but first they have to audition to be his new Mary. Set 100 years later, Edward P. Davee's obliquely told debut feature might've been called Martha Marcy May Marlene, only without an identifiable heroine. (Indeed, members of the Hurt household are hard to sort out, and its few visitors are mostly unexplained.) All that matters, really, is the way the preacher insinuates himself into the Hurt home with a combination of brimstone and guile. Maybe, according to the wanted posters, he's a fugitive and madman. But the Hurts are impressionable, susceptible to his fierce sermons about the cleansing power of fire. Something like Wisconsin Death Trip, this movie is rooted in unfathomable old beliefs and customs. Yet there's a contemporary pull, too—the need for certainty among congregants faced with a fast-industrializing world. Beyond their pasture is a railroad, which leads to Seattle and murder. Only in the other direction, says the preacher, can salvation be had.
Runs Fri., Jan. 27â€“Thurs., Feb. 2 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 81 minutes.