In the interview with director Errol Morris that’s featured on the Criterion blu-ray of Vernon, Florida (a double feature alongside Gates of Heaven), Morris reveals the unlikely origins of this documentary. Originally intended as an expose on insurance fraud in this small town, known as “Stump City” due to its inhabitants having a predilection for cutting their own limbs off to get some cash, when asking around Vernon, several people persuaded Morris that he might want to look elsewhere. If you get the meaning. He instead decided to just film a selection of people in the town, letting them ramble on about whatever the hell they want. The result is far stranger, and likely far more captivating, than the original story would have been.
The film’s thesis as a whole is probably summed up in the segments with a beleaguered turkey hunter. He’s always looking for them. He always hears them, even when the microphone doesn’t pick it up. He tells long tales about his various conquests, shows their tracks in the mud, his trophies on his wall. And yet you never see a turkey for the entire duration of the movie. He stares into empty air for long stretches of time, while ruminating on his moment of glory that’s yet to come.
Why he wanted to take his shoe off to pull the trigger, I don’t know. And the very next damn day, after we went to work, and he said, that day, he says, “That’ll be the LAST thing I ever do is to shoot myself.”
Which it was.
The above is from another standout “performer,” a barely-coherent, slurring old man who introduces himself by asking if you’ve ever seen a person’s brains. He has, he’ll tell you — he’s scooped them up off a sidewalk. This, apparently, has given him a deeper understanding of the human brain. He claims that, due to the four sections of the brain, you can have a “four-track mind”. He demonstrates this, saying if one is properly disciplined, you can “write ‘cat shit’ with this hand and ‘dog shit’ with the other one.” It’s… Inspirational, truly. For lack of a better term.
Other characters include an old man with a collection of animals that he is all too eager to show off, even at risk of personal injury, a preacher who seems to confuse circuitous, repetitive rambling with a compelling sermon, a particularly laid-back (or lazy, depending on how you look at it) police officer, and a guy who looks suspiciously like Bob Mould but with a much higher-pitched voice.
They sent me the jewel, see, and I don’t know if the jewel is genuine or not, take a look.
I don’t know what I’m looking for… I don’t know, what does a jeweler look for? Haha, you know, those guys in a jewelry store, you want something examined, they look at it through a lens, and what are they looking for? [Shrugs] You ask em, they go [shrugs].
The downside of having such a cavalcade of strange characters, and letting them talk at length about whatever they want, is that it doesn’t really fit together in any meaningful way. It’s an interesting and funny tableau, but it’s hard to take anything away from the film other than, “Haha, those weirdos.” It’s no Gates of Heaven, and it’s for damn sure no The Thin Blue Line, but at a trim 56 minutes, Vernon, Florida is definitely worth watching.