Heathens Thinks Deep About the Wild West

[show=heathens size=large]If you were a Deadwood fan, but found yourself wishing occasionally for a little less cursing and a lot more philosophy, Heathens might be for you. Seeking to answer the question, “If Freedom was a place, what would it look like?” the 28-episode indie web series takes place in a small Texas town (named Freedom, just to make the message clear) just before the state is set to join the Union. But that’s not the primary topic of discussion around town; instead, everyone is aflutter with tales of The Savage (Jana Lee Brockman), a wild woman who fulfills the sexual fantasies of men in exchange for one tooth. Tales of the Savage reach Andrew Crawley, a young writer (Justin Cegnar) seeking inspiration, and his choice to use Freedom, TX, as the basis for his Great American Novel sends events into a violent tailspin.

Heathens has a lot going on upstairs: Creator Jesse Petrick, via email, said that his primary influence was the writing of Antonin Artaud, a dramatist “obsessed with this concept of stripping away the layers of society to reveal a barbaric state of raw emotion.” He chose to make a Western to explore that topic because of what the genre has always represented in American society.

The series is a little hard to engage with initially — the first episode introduces the Savage from afar, and little is inspired except for a vague desire to understand more about why she takes teeth as payment, and what she does with them (an question not answered until Episode 9). But once Crawley arrives at the town, the pace picks up and we find ourselves looking at the town through his eyes — and getting a greater sense of what Petrick is trying to say about society today.

A first-time filmmaker, Petrick’s approach here is occasionally heavy-handed. The atmospheric music and cinematography combine to truly capture a unique tone, but there’s a reliance on voice-over that could be toned down significantly. The acting is great, though, and the caliber of the production values is one to celebrate, especially given the fact that Petrick funded the bulk of the budget with credit cards and loans. Shot in Texas (specifically, on a set constructed on Willie Nelson’s ranch for the 1986 Western The Red Headed Stranger), the costumes, props, make-up, and hair all serve to accurately capture the time period — a task which is not easy on a small budget, yet accomplished brilliantly here.

I’ve had several conversations in the past few months with creators about the challenges of finding an audience for a drama web series; despite having gotten some great press, Heathens has never managed to attract much buzz in the two years since its premiere. But it serves as an excellent calling card for Petrick’s talents, and with two episodes left to the story, promises to wrap up with a bang. Heathens is a dense and challenging series, but for those who want to believe that online video can be about more than kittens and blows to the groin, it’s a glimmer of hope.