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This is one of those movies that you watch again and again
This is very traditional Southern Slice of Life piece. It's also a love story. Not usually my cup of tea, but done so well, it's worth the 3 hours. It moves slow, so if you're not up for a long, slow, southern drawl don't go here. The movie opens with what is clearly a hot afternoon (no, i don't know how, but the cinematography is only one of the many things done right in this movie) that's about to slide into night. We watch a man light a cigarette, pick up a can of something, walk over to a barn, poor it at the foundation, and light it. All this is interspersed with pictures of a horse in its paddock and the sun thinking about setting. The next thing we see is our lead, Ben Quick, walkin' along the road/through a field somewhere in rural U.S.A. This is a slow moving, slow telling, slow building story. There is never any question that we're in the South, from the accents (not always perfect, but never jarring at least to a westerner's ear), to the race interactions (again, perhaps this is from a westerner's perspective), to the big plantation houses.
This cast is an interesting collection of folks. From Jason Robards in the role of Will Varner, old style boss of the town who owns everything, controls everything and designs all -- that is, except his children who are huge disappointments to him to Don Johnson as Ben Quick, the out of towner, drifter, and general trouble maker who decides that this just might be the place to settle down, to Judith Ivey as Miss Noel the "old maid" older sister who is educated, more than a little uptight and not-quite-engaged to a gentleman that is as flat and uninspiring as Alan Stewart can make him to William Russ as Jodi Varner, the son that never quite measured up to the overbearing father to Cybil Shepphard's Eula, the sex crazed, manipulative southern belle with a good heart for those who really can't keep up (the town "dim-with" for instance), the performances manage to exceed "stereotype" and become "archetype". Ava Gardener (Minnie Littlejohn), Stephan Davies (Alan Stewart), and Albert Hall (Armistad Howlett) all add depth to this production in beautifully played character parts. William Forsythe, as Isaac the town dim-wit, is a beautiful piece of casting. One of the many unexpected bonuses is James Gammon in the role of Billy Quick, Ben's no-account, shiftless, bad news dad.
That they're using William Faulkner's works as the basis for their scripts has, I suspect, a lot to do with that. He's been able to describe the South for the rest of us for most of the 20th century. He can describe a moment in time like very few others and the director, Stuart Cooper, managed to capture Faulkner's ability to paint pictures with the camera. You almost begin to sweat with the first shots of this movie the scenes are so beautifully shot.
It's not long before you forget it's a movie and you start to think you're listening on the veranda as Don Johnson and Jason Robards meet, speak, plan and plot. As you watch the interplay between William Russ and James Robards, between Don Johnson and William Russ, you feel like you're watching a great plantation house collapse under the weight of years of neglect. Frenchman's House, a great old plantation home, is used as an excellent allegory for the condition of the Varner Family.
But in all of this, lest you forget, it's really also, at it's heart, a love story. Ben pings to Miss Noel right off. She's a challenge, she's reserved, she's sharp as a tack and Ben is attracted to all these qualities and more. It's apparent that he sparks to her long before Will Varner "buys him" as "stud for his daughter". It's no surprise that in the end, Ben gets his girl and Jodi grows up -- how that is accomplished over the course of the 3 hours is what's worth the ride.
Don as Ben is, by turns, deliciously mischievous, honest to the point of brutally blunt, mysterious, genteelly caring, willing to run roughshod over folks & their feelings, exceptionally tender and more. This is a stellar performance for Don and he matches up to Robards (also in a very strong performance) with no trouble at all. Judith Ivey, whose work I'm not familiar with, makes a great opposing match for Don. She isn't the beauty or care-free soul that Shepphard's Eula is, but then that's part of the attraction for Ben. She's a puzzle, a nut to be cracked, a woman to be loved. That Daddy is willing to pay him to go there is a bonus and that he loves her anyway and aside from that becomes very clear. Don is strong & sexy & romantic & adventurous & dangerous and makes Ben Quick as Agent of Change very believable and very real. This movie also has what is possibly one of the most intense & sizzling romantic love scenes I've seen anywhere. This isn't about wham, bam, thank you ma'm and it's not about nudity. It's about discovering what 2 adults can find in each other if they let themselves and it's got all the more impact for that.
This movie is a joy to watch. That you know where it's going is unimportant. The point is the journey and this cast makes it a very satisfying journey indeed. The only thing I can name as "getting in the way" of my total immersion was the unfortunate 80's almost-farrah-fawcett 'do they put on Miss Ivey. If the worst you can say about a movie is that one of the women had a bad hair style, you're doing pretty well.
It shows up on cable every now and then, but as it's still only on VHS, Netflix doesn't have it yet. Which is a REAL shame.
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