Every family is haunted by ghosts - some metaphorical, some literal. The Mosher family has more than most. The filmmakers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher bring a daring honesty to the story, crafting a deeply personal documentary with broad social significance. Shot over a year from one Halloween to the next, October Country hums with rich visual metaphors - distinct but subtle motifs illuminate each character like a revealing costume. Dreamily floating through multiple storylines like a phantom presence, the film never resorts to any single melodramatic plot, instead painting a realistic portrait of a family who are unique, but also sadly representative of the struggles of America’s working class.
Dottie married Don when they were teenagers, but he was shipped off to Vietnam at age 19, and came back, in his own words, “an asshole,” plagued by visions of dead friends and nightmares he can’t bear to describe, which burst and linger like 4th of July fireworks, resonating through generations. Still, with his dry wit, strong moral character, and tough love, combined with Dottie’s caring advice and eternal hopefulness in the face of inevitable despair, the two of them form the precarious source of stability for the entire family. “If you don’t have family, you don’t have anything,” Dottie says. “Family is the one thing the government, or a bill collector, can’t come and take away from you.”
Don’s sister Denise, a practicing witch and lifelong outsider, has been painfully estranged from Don ever since he went to war, with somewhat conflicting accounts on the spiteful nature of their rift. Her favorite place is the cemetery, and she bleakly intones that she won’t mind being there when her time comes: “Some of my best friends are ghosts.” In this family, where the government and bill collectors are working to split the kin, relatives are sometimes eerily similar to distant and anxious spirits.
Don and Dottie’s child Donna also grew up too fast, and as a teenager she gave birth to Daneal, who was raised essentially without a father. Daneal weeps when she learns the sad truth about her father, begging to be lied to. She’d rather live with her fantasy of a father than deal with the real thing. And so the cycle continues, as teenage Daneal is already a divorced mother, pregnant again and broke, falling into yet another violent relationship with a man who thinks it’s funny when she’s mad. Stuck with only one main employer (making guns for a war even this patriotic town no longer supports), many of the men in the community succumb to petty crime, drug abuse, depression and violence. Still just a kid herself, Daneal wonders, “If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of a baby?” She fights to keep her child from becoming yet another ghost, but you can see her drifting like the concrete river she stares at, sinking like the shots of liquor she downs all too often.
The last hope to break the cycle could be Donna’s whip-smart pre-teen daughter Desi. “Ain’t I a sweetheart,” she croons. “Not really. I wasn’t raised by the perfect family.” Standoffish but as sweet as Halloween candy, Desi seems poised to transcend the mistakes made by the older women in her family, despite a horrific revelation about her own history which has her ready to disappear at the count of one-two-three.
Hoping for a reconciliation, or at least a little bit of levity, Dottie organizes a Halloween party, because at least then folks can come in costume and pretend to be someone else. But everyone in the family knows you can only hide behind an apparition for so long. “Sometimes you wonder is this the real me, or is this something that’s been created,” Don says. “And you’ll never know.”