Top positive review
21 people found this helpful
on April 15, 2004
It is a brave, albeit sometimes foolish, thing to invest one's soul in one creative project. Arliss Howard as writer, co-producer, director, and star of this film stepped up to the plate, and blasted this one out of the park. He took a series of short stories by realist Southern writer Larry Brown, raw jangled events, and weaved a remarkable semi-cohesive odyssey from them.
Howard, as director, created the kind of film that slaps you in the face. It showers you with smokey narrative, and challenges you to stay up with it. It is very cinematic, laden with lush flashbacks, Fellinisk absurdist characters frolicing about, voice-overs (some of which overlap), surrealism, and piercing symbolism. It recreated the musky flavors of Mississippi, in pace, dialect, and imagery. Some of the dialogue was clever, worth quoting, and much of it was colloquial; rife with down-home twang and swagger. Barlow, the main character, at one point said," I want to punch a mudhole in your ass, and stomp it dry.".
Howard, as producer, teamed up with his wife, Debra Winger, and convinced IFC to release it. Howard, as writer, collaborated with Larry Brown's brother Jim, and they transcribed all the swarthy confusion, drama, and epiphany of the short stories, overlaying them with a through-line and a fascinating protagonist engaged on a drunken angry journey from bathos to clarity.
Howard, as actor, gave an intense, passionate, and unsympathetic performance; like Ed Harris in POLLOCK. We sensed the character's genius, and we were forced to wade hip deep in his imperfections. Leon Barlow was a man fighting demons, and taking heavy body punches. A wannabe writer, a Vietnam vet, an alcoholic, a deadbeat dad, a brawler, and an eccentric. He smoked too much, drank too much, and was not a responsible parent for his wonderful son and daughter. But he was also a loyal and loving friend, and a talented writer. Howard was so good in this part, Roger Ebert in his review reacted emotionally to the negativity of the character. For much of the picture Barlow was falling down drunk, literally, and Howard portrayed it masterfully. The image of Barlow haunts us; that gaunt enebreated stare, that sparkling intellect swirling below the booze, that muscular back covered in scars, his PTSD, that ever present cigarette dangling from his lips.
Paul Le Mat gave one of his best performances as Monroe, the good buddy and best friend. He seemed to be quite wealthy, but after he and Barlow returned from Viet Nam, all he ever wanted to do was hang out with his friend. He became patron and caretaker. He loved the man, and he stood by him regardless of the risk. After Monroe was nearly killed when an Army truck collided with his stalled pick-up, leaving him brain damaged and remote, Barlow was cut loose. And this tragedy came on the searing heels of Barlow losing his angelic daughter to a respiratory ailment. The twin traums seemed to shake the hangover cobwebs from his psyche, forcing him to look into the abyss of his excesses. Then like a bolt of white light he received an acceptance letter for some of his writing, and the denouement was complete.
Debra Winger, as Marilyn, the ex-wife, reminded us that we have missed her screen presence for far too long. Her small scene where she finally lets the grief from her daughter's death descent upon her was devastating. Thematically, Barlow, in jail, had the same moment to stare at his child's snapshot and grieve. Their co-mingled cries of loss and anguish rose together as parents, and it became doubly hard to resist one's tears. Rosanna Arquette had fun with Velma, Monroe's girlfriend, then wife. Her mixture of ditz-sexuality and geniune compassion rang true. Angie Dickinson, as the mother, Mrs. Barlow, did a credible job of joining the ensemble. Michael Parks, as the storekeeper, Mr. Aaron, was almost recognizable. Only his habitual mumbling clued us in; although to his credit he did create a memorable character. Several Tom Waits tunes, and other blues selections were used for musical tone. I wondered how Tom Waits, as actor, would have approached Mr. Aaron. One fun bit of casting had author Larry Brown playing the father, Mr. Barlow.
The film is a carnival ride, and we are swept up in a maelstrom of delusion, cigarette smoke, stale beer, tragedy, humor, and whiskey. As it winds down finally, as the emotional storm abates, we are left with an odd sense of warmth, as if the arduous journey has paid off, and we are left with a sun-kissed birdsong moment on a cloudless Southern morning.