A wunderkind film director forced into early retirement becomes embroiled in old causes and ancient crimes in this too- tentative thriller from Omni editor-in-chief Ferrell (John Steinbeck, a 1986 YA title, etc.). Having distanced himself from Hollywood in the wake of a hushed-up scandal that threatened completion of his last picture (the commercially successful Moonstalk), world-weary Baird Lowen wants little more than to return to his Deep South roots, dabble in journalism, and fish for bass on his rural farmstead. But old high- school buddy Roy Duncan comes out of the past to pressure him into frustrating a blackmail scheme. An upwardly mobile attorney with gubernatorial ambitions and a pillar of the New Spirit for American Morality movement, Roy has received a pointed warning that he'd better withdraw from political life, complete with for-sale photos of his wife Ellen making whoopee with Baird when both were teenagers. Baird returns to Samson, N.C., in pursuit of the extortionist. Once back in his hometown (where New Spirit is headquartered), he finds certain of the natives surprisingly friendly--including Frederick Prescott, founder of the multinational ministry. As crafty and good-hearted as he is charismatic, the TV evangelist makes a low-key effort to enlist Baird in his crusade. Meantime, Baird manages to identify the shakedown artist, but before he can deal with him, the suspect (a ne'er-do-well classmate) dies in a fire that local authorities refuse to label suspicious. This dubious finding sets Baird off on another hunt, during which he takes some lumps from born-again heavies. At the close, he is off the hook, and the presumably culpable New Spirit disciples have either perished or been banished from Eden. A tepid, tedious tale that fails to capitalize fully on a potentially intriguing theme: apostles of the Religious Right finding themselves at odds with their own values as well as with those of secular society.