Firstly, I’d just like to start off by saying a big thank you to One Bandit Productions and Director, Michael Butts for allowing me early access to an online screener of his debut feature length film “Potter’s Ground”, Written by Scott Crain. Potter’s Ground is a period piece Western/Crime/Thriller that centers around a team of former Confederate outlaws during the final stages of the civil war. Led by soon-to-be father, Sully (Isaiah Stratton), the group, which includes the hard-boiled, Lex (played by Crain himself) and Native-American, “Ninekiller” (Loren Anthony) are commanded to take part in a dangerous retrieval mission to find a three piece ancient treasure. The film also stars Todd Bush, Katharine Franco, Leslie Mills, James J. Fuertes, and Lexi Janicek.
So as luck would have it, I stumbled upon the trailer for this fresh-faced western while networking on a filmmakers group page a few months back and it immediately jumped out at me. I’d temporarily forgotten about it until I saw Michael promoting the film’s upcoming digital and hardcopy release (slated for June if my memory serves me correct) so I thought I’d reach out to try to secure a screener, and as they say – the rest is history. The first thing to note about Potter’s Ground is that it’s a DIY-style independent film, not that you’d ever know it from the extremely polished end result. It’s a film in which the primary theme is about past and present and how in most cases our journey from the former almost always inevitably catches up with us somewhere in the latter – as is the case for our protagonist, Sully. Firstly, Crain’s screenplay presents the film in a really interesting fashion. Mostly linear with his timeline, but opting to use unconventional chapter titles that refer to pieces of dialogue used by the characters in that respective section instead of locations, times, or places – a unique touch right off the bat.
I was shocked to find that DP, Joshua Shreve has very few credits next to his name. That said, if all is right in the world he’ll be getting plenty of phone calls in the not-so-distant future because Potter’s Ground benefits from impressive cinematography throughout. Shreve presents diverse shot choices and intriguing methods from scene to scene, in addition, everything is superbly and atmospherically backlit. An early action scene in which our main trio of marauders pursues a mystery man on foot through a heavily wooded forest utilizes a crane in a simple way to add further production value to the mix. Another example would be a great opening tracking shot that begins in Sully’s peaceful homestead and moves directly down underground to reveal a key component of the scene that bookends the film. On top of that, Potter’s Ground contains good clean audio (something that isn’t easy to obtain). All the foley is consistently sharp and helps set the tone of the film from the outset. Composer, James Shiveley is just another one of the crew with surprisingly few credits to his name despite clearly being very skilled at his craft. The film opens with an original piece of violin score and later, deep tones permeate from the likes of the bass and cello and aid in creating the tension that builds over the course of the film. The trio of individuals responsible for the set decoration in Potter’s Ground should give themselves a huge pat on the back (Tom Zembrod is a guy whose work I’m familiar with) – so to the art department for dressing these sets so thoroughly. There are a few key locations, the likes of Sully’s cozy homestead, the underground jail, and the tavern in the main town – all of which look fantastic on film and clearly fittingly worn as we explore them. People don’t necessarily realize that the smallest of details done right, is a part of what keeps you engaged.
I was informed by Michael that a sizeable chunk of the cast either had fairly limited previous experience or was/are still participating in acting classes – another tidbit of information that you’d never pick while watching the film. The entire cast turn in really solid performances and they’re ultimately led by a somewhat surprising and charismatic duo in Stratton and Crain (sounds like a department store haha), two guys who I’d never seen before. The bulk of the actors are certainly benefited by Crain’s pulpy dialogue, which goes double for the leads who get to revel in the witty banter during some of the film’s downtime. The pacing is even throughout and each scene is thoroughly entertaining in its own way. One of my favorite scenes occurs around the halfway mark, it’s a terrific group campfire scene in which Crain flexes his muscles, as both a writer and an actor, squeezing maximum suspense from the uncertain scenario. I’ll also make special mention of a delightfully unusual plot device which comes out of left-field around a similar stage of the film (when you see it you’ll know what I’m talking about). The action set piece in question contains some seriously crafty special fx and makes for a great addition. Lastly, the climactic showdown (some of which is presented in slow motion) is extremely satisfying. Not only that, Butts and Crain also throw in an original touch that allows things to come full circle regarding something that could’ve been deemed throwaway exposition at the beginning of the film. It was perhaps a little silly, but at the same time caught me off-guard in the best way possible.
I have to search high and low for shortcomings when it comes to Potter’s Ground because it really is one of those rare hidden gems you only find every so often (I realize it can’t actually be hidden because it’s not out yet!) but you get me. From a technical standpoint, there are one or two scenes where the score feels a touch too loud in the mix and drowns out the dialogue ever so slightly. I’d love to have seen a few more uses of a lantern, particularly in the graveyard scene and some of the foggy night exteriors. On the dialogue front, there’s one off the cuff use of the C-bomb which I found rather jarring and implausible given the time period (although I know they drove that word home with a sledgehammer in Deadwood – also a period piece western). SMALL SPOILER: I’m not sure that prior to the assault sequence, Lex really displayed enough of the behavior you’d expect from someone who could carry that out. I didn’t feel it was overly warranted or even necessary, he’d shown no interest in Dolorosa (Franco) in the lead up. It ends up just feeling shoehorned in to give justification for the arc his character ultimately takes.
Potter’s Ground might just typify the staple of “hidden gem”, and the fact that this was bought to life by a first-time filmmaker (in regard to feature films) truly makes it all the more impressive. In a way, it reminds me of Craig Zahler’s sophomore venture “Bone Tomahawk” (which was also made on a small budget all things considered), in the sense that it provides great genre entertainment for fans of the Western, whilst also providing an avenue for Butts and Crain to throw some of their own unique ideas into the fold. The cinematography is impeccable, the audio and sound design defined, and the score hits all the fitting beats you’ve come to expect from the genre. I reveled in the set design and location, which entertained me in and of itself. When coupled together with believable acting and entertaining action sequences boasting solid choreography, the end result is nothing short of brilliant. A couple of very minor gripes aside, Potter’s Ground is likely to be one of the best indie films you’ll see in 2021 and it’s bound to make its mark when it inevitably hits streaming platforms and DVD come the middle of the year. Everyone involved with the making of this film should be extremely proud of the work they’ve done, excellent stuff! And you can go ahead and check out the film’s official trailer below!
Potter’s Ground – 8.5/10