It takes some skill to find a new angle to one of the most well-known lessons in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but director/co-writer Garrett Batty exercises that ability well in the compelling Western drama “Out of Liberty.”
Those who remember their church talks know about Liberty Jail, where church founder Joseph Smith (played here by Brandon Ray Olive) and five other leaders were imprisoned from Dec. 1, 1838, to April 6, 1839, facing charges of treason and an extermination order from Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs.
As Batty, co-writing with Stephen Dethloff and S. McKay Stevens, depicts it, conditions for Smith and his men were horrid. The men shared a 14-foot-by-14-foot basement cell, accessible by a rope through a trap door above, with a bucket for their bathroom. A couple of the men were sick from the imprisonment and meager rations. Smith’s men plot to escape during one of the brief interludes when their jailer, Samuel Tillery, lets them upstairs.
Much has been written about Smith and the revelation he received in Liberty Jail. (It takes up three chapters in the faith’s Doctrine and Covenants.) Batty doesn’t tell this story from Smith’s vantage point, but focuses on the lesser-known Tillery. As played by Jasen Wade (a familiar face in such Utah-made films as “The Cokeville Miracle” and “17 Miracles”), Tillery is a taciturn, solitary man, a war veteran who wants to do his job and stay out of the political debate over the Mormons’ presence in Missouri.
Daily exposure to Smith and his men show Tillery that these Mormons aren’t the monsters they’ve been made out to be by their enemies. Some of those enemies show up regularly at the jail, and Tillery is put in the position — like Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” — of standing guard to prevent violence and see justice done.
Batty has proved, in the Russian hostage drama “The Saratov Approach” and the Liberian survival drama “Freetown,” that he is a master at showing Latter-day Saints in claustrophobic life-and-death situations. He deploys that talent again here, turning what could have been a stage play into a cinematic experience within the jail’s close quarters.
Olive brings a quiet soulfulness to his portrayal of Smith, who evolves quickly as a leader in jail. Also notable is Corbin Allred (“Saints and Soldiers,” “The Saratov Approach”), who steals a few scenes as Smith’s muscle, the larger-than-life Porter Rockwell.
But it’s Wade’s steely performance as Tillery, a man torn between what’s expected and what’s right, that gives “Out of Liberty” its backbone — and makes what could have been a dry history lesson into something vital and alive.
‘Out of Liberty’
In a moving historical drama, a jailer is put at the center of a war between imprisoned Latter-day Saint leaders and an angry mob.
Where • Utah theaters
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 13
Rated • PG for violence and thematic content.
Running time • 112 minutes