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Ask anyone in the legal profession - judge or attorney, clerk of the court or guardian ad litem - and they will tell you the same thing: death brings out the worst in people. From families fighting to divide up what's left of a supposed loved one's estate to the disinherited declaring their phony baloney loyalty to the executor of the will, grief and greed are so closely linked that you'd swear there was more to the connection that a similarity in spelling and phonics. While professionals always warn about preparing for these after death inevitabilities, it's impossible to predict every situation. Take the case of the Osbornes. Before he died, the family patriarch made it clear to friends and family that he wanted his son Josh to own the clan's dairy farm. Within months of his passing, however, Mom was listing the inventory, ready to sell it all off to the highest bidder. What happened next became the basis for one of the Northeast's most bizarre parent/child squabbles. It also provided the premise for one of 2007's best 'believe it or not' documentaries, Knee Deep.
While hanging clothes on the washing line, Janette Osborne heard a small pop. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in her side. Shaken, but completely aware of her situation, she headed for her car and started into town. As she was leaving, she thought she saw her son standing near the house, a rifle in his hand. Seconds late, two more shots were heard. Thus began Farmington, Maine's most notorious case of attempted murder. Janette's estranged son, 22 year old Josh, was charged with the crime, along with his latest live-in gal pal Donna. Seems that Mom had decided to sell the family dairy farm. Her boy, convinced the property was his birthright, decided to demonstrate his disapproval in a rather violent manner - or so the authorities speculated. Both Josh and Donna delivered conflicting stories about what happened that day, and strangely enough, Janette didn't want her child punished. Within the crime lay a dozen different dimensions, from veiled promises to outright lies. And standing Knee Deep in all of it was an uneducated farmer who dropped out of school at 12 to help his beloved father. Eviction and disinheritance was, apparently, the compensation he had earned over the last 11 years of working the land.
In the end, it all boils down to a simple 'he said/she said'. On one side is Josh Osborne, sixth grade educated, hard working dairy farmer. On the other is his latest girlfriend, Donna Enman, a twice married and now pregnant conniver who provides the sheltered 22 year old the only compassion he's ever experienced. Devastated by the death of his father, and the horrible home life his distant, abusive mother provided, Josh knows only one thing - the hard work and satisfaction of a day raising and milking cows. He's dedicated the better part of his life to the family heritage. But all that changes when Mom moves away, Dad starts drinking, the cancer hits, and soon, developers are scooping out the land for potential progress. According to police and the District Attorney, Josh snapped when he learned his mother was evicting him, reneging on a promise that he would inherit the farm. Instead of fulfilling his father's last wish, money and the need for closure appeared to be motivating her unconscionable decision. Thunderstruck, the disowned son plotted the death of his parent. Unfortunately, whoever ended up shooting her used the wrong caliber gun. She was wounded, but well enough to drive herself to the hospital for treatment. Josh and Donna were jailed, causing a scandal in an area of Maine more accustomed to livestock issues than tawdry tabloid events.
Thus we have the two sided set up. Donna drops dime on Josh early and often in Michael Chandler's amazing documentary Knee Deep. She's the queen of the conspiracy, offering names, places, and examples of her ex's homicidal desires. Adding fuel to such sensationalized sentiments are the various bumpkin buddies interviewed, confirming that conversations around the property frequently turned to offing Ms. Osborne. Of course, it could be the bountiful beers and occasional weed talking. One thing's for sure - the rest of the clan didn't like the disagreeable Janette one bit. She never took care of her own, decided to go to nursing school just as Josh was dropping out to help save the farm, and ended up spending more time in computer chat rooms than tending to her household. The portrait painted here by relatives and townies is brutal. If the audience wasn't asked to play impartial moral compass throughout the majority of the proceedings, we'd be looking for a weapon to end the Osborne children's misery as well. Sister Sandy is especially sad, her tales of physical beatings and psychological berating ringing all too true. Yet Chandler isn't out to excuse these actions. Instead, this is a rural Rashomon. Everyone has a version of events, and like the masterful movie it most resembles, 1992's Brother's Keeper, it is up to us to figure it all out.
Jostled between justifiable homicide (while eventually championed by some, Mom is a real witch) and inexcusable naiveté (for such a competent agriculturalist, Josh is a really dim son), Knee Deep fails to fully come into focus. Since we hear early on that both defendants got sweetheart deals, that the evidence was mostly circumstantial and anecdotal, and that Janette actually appeared on her son's behalf, there's a feeling that there was much ado here about a rather marginal case. To make matters more simplistic, a local jury would have been nearly impossible to seat. Most in the town sided with Josh, the failure of farms over the last three decades already amplifying an intense desire to stand by tradition. When it maneuvers among the yokels, Knee Deep is indeed amazing. While it may be cliché to say it, the craftiest writer in the world couldn't create these people. Hard working, poorly educated but smart as a whip when it comes to their living, and all to aware of their breed's dying nature, they come across as dense but noble, dirty but proud. Josh is also an intriguing subject. Though dedicated and quite resilient, he still seems like a boy trapped in an agrarian's worn out body.
While it could be more conclusive in how it handles the payoff (there is very little satisfaction for all the parties involved) and fails to fully acknowledge the corporeal nature of the narrative (suffering Sis still looks horribly haunted), Knee Deep is still one of the best documentaries on closed off communities and human politics ever mounted. It will infuriate you at times, questioning how a family that toiled together could actually come to such selfish ends. It will frustrate you as Donna drives the conversation one way, only to have Josh negate the facts the next. Sprinkled in between the good and the goofy, the understandable and the unfathomable, one horribly isolated individual comes to the fore. While it would spoil the denouement to indicate what happened to Josh, let's just say that the more things change, the more things are steadfast in their desire to remain the same. While not on par with the previously mentioned Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky masterpiece, Knee Deep is close. While one has to remember that all "true life" tales are being filtered by the creator's camera (and choices), this is the rare effort that feels rightfully authentic. It's too scattered and surreal to be a total filmmaker fabrication.
Provided as a screener to DVD Talk, Knee Deep has a nice digital to film feel. The 1.33:1 full screen image is colorful, sharp, and occasionally quite compelling. Most of the time, we are merely staring at talking heads and far off vistas, but Chandler's choices are aesthetically pleasing.
Since this is a screener copy of the film, it is impossible to grade the sonic situation. What was presented (Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0) was crystal clear and rather atmospheric. The conversations were always easy to decipher, and the minimal musical underscoring was eloquent and professional.
As this is a screener copy of the film, there is no added content to discuss. Here's hoping the eventual DVD contains a wealth of worthwhile bonus features - in particular, a commentary, an update on the town, and some interviews with the participants circa 2007.
After watching Knee Deep, it's clear that there are hundreds of stories like this bubbling along the fringes of fame whoring society every single minute of every waking day. Families fall out, the business comes up for grabs, and interpersonal stances are cemented in the hope that fate smiles kindly on their particular position in the fracas. Luckily, Michael Chandler was around to capture this one on film. Whether by skill or outright happenstance, he's found a formidable subject and made a mesmerizing film. While not perfect, it still easily earns a Highly Recommended rating. The story of Josh Osborne, his life of labor and toil, and the betrayal that would bring him close to committing the ultimate crime is, without a doubt, a compelling cinematic experience. Here's hoping that things take a turn in the young man's favor. No matter what he did, his treatment at the hands of those who supposedly loved him was much more than a parent-to-child transgression - it was a sin. Why he ended up paying remains a clear karmic joke.
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