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Lee H. Katzin
WALKER PAYNE, as written by director Matt Williams and Alex Paraskevas, is a bleak study of life in the late 1950s middle America. It is a story of dreams crushed by the tough realities of bad luck and bad decisions. For some viewers this story may be depressing, but for others the story as a cinematic recreation of a period of time in America is full of fine details and boasts a cast of excellent actors who manage to involve us in the fleeting hopes and the permanent scars that are magnified during difficult times and circumstances.
Walker Payne (Jason Patric), a lovable man with a prison record, works in an Illinois coal mine, spends his free time womanizing, yet is strongly attached to his two young daughters who now live with his estranged wife (Drea de Matteo) - a woman angry with her plight in life, having sacrificed her dreams of being a nurse to move to the little mining town, surviving as a waitress without child support from the financially delinquent Walker. His closest companion is his Pit Bull dog Brute who accompanies him everywhere. Walker longs to have his girls live with him, but the injured wife puts a price on that wish: she will give him possession of the girls for a fee of $5000., a figure she has calculated will pay for her leaving the little town she hates and pay for tuition and boarding in nursing school.
Walker is at a loss for funds, especially when the mine shuts down and he is unemployed. Seeking help from his banker friend does not result in a loan but does acquaint him with a new woman in town - Audrey (KaDee Strickland) - a proper girl with her own reasons for 'escaping' to the solitudes of the little mining town where she has a responsible position in the bank. Walker's close friend (Bruce Dern) collects stray animals and cares for them and is the source of Walker's gaining Brute as a pet, but when the desperate Walker seeks employment there, no funds are available for his help. Walker's roving romantic eye focuses on Audrey who plays hard to get until she sees how desperate Walker is to get the money to gain custody of his daughters, a fact which positively alters her perception of Walker. About this time Walker meets Syrus (Sam Shepard), a man who gambles and makes under cover deals: one of his 'games' is to find dogs who can fight for money and as he gets loser to Walker's desperation, he convinces him to train Brute to 'be the dog he was bred to be - a fighter'. Walker hesitates until he realizes this is his only chance to make the money to gain his little girls. Brute is trained, wins a fight, and Syrus then challenges Walker to enter a championship fight that will provide all the money Walker needs. Very reluctantly Walker steps into what is a scheme that results in tragedies in which he seems to lose it all - his dog, his freedom, his new love, and his girls. The audience is left to wade through the depression of the last portion of the film and create individual versions of how the story could possibly end.
There are some unresolved issues dealing with the motivations of some of the characters, but the film is very strong in allowing the viewer to understand the extremes to which people will go in times of crisis. Many portions of the film are difficult to watch (the dog fights are graphic), but somehow the actors are able to create strong enough impressions that our attention is focused more on the desperate and fragile dreams of each of the characters. The musical score by Mason Daring enhances the visceral cinematography by James L. Carter. This is a dark film with moments of human frailty that provide small beams of hopeful light. Grady Harp
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