SHERIFF follows the daily adventures of Sheriff Ronald E. Hewett as he tries to keep the peace in the rural community of Brunswick County, North Carolina. More than five years in the making, SHERIFF uses classic cinema verité technique (which excludes interviews, music and narration) to create a character study of an American icon, the small-town sheriff.
At once a good ol’ boy, politician and dedicated community servant, Hewett heads what was once a ridiculously backward department. (Before his election in 1994, the department wasn't even open after 5 p.m.) But with an easy confidence and a knack for reeling off evening news sound bytes like a pro, Hewett is changing all of that.
The film shows Hewett and his officers as they hunt down an escaped bank robber, raid a video poker operation and even recover a stolen big-rig filled with ceramic lawn ornament molds. When he is not chasing bad guys or giving press conferences on a grisly homicide, the sheriff finds time to pray with concerned residents, tout responsibility to junior high students and partake in his favorite pastime: hunting.
All the while, Hewett remains the quintessential Southern gentleman. He is quick with a “ma’am” or a “sir”—criminals are no exception—and even thanks volunteers, who help comb a field for evidence, with grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. Indeed, Hewett’s easy smile, warmth and down home sincerity seem to invite the entire community to embrace him as family. This is not entirely by chance—as a montage of business placards and street signs with the name Hewett reveals, he may just be related to almost everyone.
Amid the episodes of everyday police work, Director/Editor/Cinematographer Daniel Kraus includes quiet interludes that capture the tones and textures of the modern American South. Insects chirp over poetic shots of twisted marshland, corn stalks rustle in a hot wind and a neon sign advertising “Worms & Coffee” buzzes through the humid, dark night.
This serenity is all too often shattered. In one key moment in SHERIFF, a 70-year-old attorney is found dead in his car. Hewett examines the bloody crime scene, and once again goes before the news media to deliver the facts of the case and ask for help in finding the killer. In the ensuing investigation, Hewett directs his officers to stand on a road and hand out fliers to passing drivers. He also calls on employees and volunteers to pick through a grassy field for bullet casings and a murder weapon, but not before first making sure his “team” is properly slathered in bug spray.
At once brutal, bizarre and funny, SHERIFF is an unexpected, intimate portrait of a complex man trying to do good in a bad, bad world.
Meet the sheriff in an exclusive interview >>
Read the filmmaker Q&A >>
Learn about cinema verité >>