Back Roads (1981)
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Norma Rae director Martin Ritt reunites with Sally Field. I think it's intended as a grimy tough rom-com. Whether it's the script or the much rumored bad relationship between Field and Jones, the couple is plagued with bitter anger and the chemistry is never good. The movie is filmed in a low rent 70s style Grime-o-Vision. It works sometimes like playing pinball in a roadside bar but mostly it looks like a poorly made indie. In the end, the relationship never blossoms as it's suppose to. Sally Field does have a good breakdown, but Tommy Lee Jones have the acting range of a grumpy old man.
Whether you like this movie or not depends entirely on how much sympathy and love you can afford to our main characters. If there is anyone to ever be able to pull off this genteel and earnest feat, it would be Sally field. Yes, Sally Field had the girlish charm with her doll-like big eyes, her tiny figure and endearing pout. She is a hooker with a heart of gold who for some reason has fallen on the fringes of society due to unhealthy and bad life decisions. There was a time in Hollywood when a hooker's character was treated with much more scorn and shame. But at this time in cinema, the early 1980's, Hollywood cast a more fair light on these subjects while treating them with pity and more likability. It's true that prostitutes and low lives are more charming on screen than in real life and we accept this by our own consent. Strangely and perhaps intentionally, Back Roads was marketed as a screwball romantic comedy. What those few viewers saw on screen was a bit more sad and serious with some dark comedy intertwined. Tommie Lee Jones does well and the chemistry between him and Sally is correct. As much as they bicker, make up, break apart and get back together, it all seems so right if not predictable. We root for them. They are not the winners of society, but they win our hearts.
The montage of Amy traveling alone on foot, on buses or hitching rides is accompanied by the melancholy ballad as we see our forlorn heroine looking defeated, blue and lonely. The director allows us to peer into her lonely and desperate soul. Tommie Lee is nothing more than a hapless bum who loses his job, but still has a chance to make a quick buck in a low stakes boxing ring. Sometimes love happens in the worst of circumstances and forces people to address what matters most whether it's from inner desperation or just the innate need for a partner. This is a humble tale of two drifters, who, through their personal journey, learn about love and the need for friendship.
Some people may be turned off by the grubby lifestyle and the sleazy misadventures these two go through. We are treated to the seediness of the redneck south with all of its cheap diners, truck stops, motels and how it looks from a low-budget traveler's perspective. There is also some corny dialogue; "I've seen some squirrel's in my time, but you are at the top of the tree", exclaims Amy when she expresses her disapproval of Elmore's uncouth character. Typical dialogue of this era seems outdated, but it doesn't detract from the overall theme.
The one downfall to this movie is that they couldn't construct a good ending, because the story doesn't really promise that these characters are going to strike it rich once they reach California. The movie simply ends as they stand there hitchhiking while making a poetic statement of how they accept themselves and their love for each other. What matters is not the outcome of their journey, but how they arrive at a personal state of self-acceptance. Movies like Back Roads endear us to the down and out losers. Their ill-fated lives are a not treated as a result of their ignoble character, but rather as a byproduct of their vulnerability and weaknesses.
The pairing of Sally Field, who does reasonably well in this unusual role, and Tommy Lee Jones is never romantically moving, and the duo can make little of the sparse comedy and ineffective drama. David Keith drops by in a supporting role, but his meaningless character leaves him floundering.
De Vore made nothing of the subplot involving Miss Field's little boy.
Saturday, June 10, 1995 - Video
The film is the tale of a middle-aged sex worker Amy Post(Sally Field) and a drifter and ex-boxer Elmore Pratt(Tommy Lee Jones)who gets the occasional boxing match in the places he visits.
The film tells the story of how these two characters meets and from that single encounter will form a bond that will last forever. As I have already said it is a beautiful film and I am a romantic at heart.
Martin Ritt a seasoned director, really makes us feel that we are in the middle of the events that unfold in the film. I have seen two of Ritt's earlier films that I also recommend you see: Hud(1963 starring Paul Newman) and Norma Rae(1973 starring Sally Field and based on a true story).