Embracing the Melodrama Part II #46: Walking Tall (dir by Phil Karlson)


Walking_Tall_(1973_film)About 50 minutes into the 1973 film Walking Tall (not to be confused with the 2005 version that starred Dwayne Johnson), there’s a scene in which newly elected sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) gives a speech to his deputies.  As the deputies stand at attention and as Pusser announces that he’s not going to tolerate any of his men taking bribes from the Dixie Mafia, the observant viewer will notice something out-of-place about the scene.

Hovering directly above Baker’s head is a big, black, almost phallic boom mic.  It stays up there throughout the entire scene, a sudden and unexpected reminder that — though the film opens with a message that we’re about to see the true story of “an American hero” and though it was filmed on location in rural Tennessee — Walking Tall is ultimately a movie.

And yet, somehow, that phallic boom mic feels oddly appropriate.  First off, Walking Tall is an almost deliberately messy film.  That boom mic tells us that Walking Tall was not a slick studio production.  Instead, much like Phil Karlson’s previous The Phenix City Story, it was a low-budget and violent film that was filmed on location in the south, miles away from the corrupting influence of mainstream, yankee-dominated Hollywood.  Secondly, the phallic implications of the boom mic erases any doubt that Walking Tall is a film about men doing manly things, like shooting each other and beating people up.  Buford does have a wife (Elizabeth Hartman) who begs him to avoid violence and set a good example of his children.  However, she eventually gets shot in the back of the head, which frees Buford up to kill.

As I said earlier, Walking Tall opens with a message telling us that we’re about to watch a true story.  Buford Pusser is a former football player and professional wrestler who, after retiring, returns to his hometown in Tennessee.  He quickly discovers that his town is controlled by criminals and moonshiners.  When he goes to a local bar called The Lucky Spot, he is unlucky enough to discover that the bar’s patrons cheat at cards.  Buford is nearly beaten to death and dumped on the side of the road.  As Buford begs for help, several motorists slow down to stare at him before then driving on.

Obviously, if anyone’s going to change this town, it’s going to have to be Buford Pusser.

Once he recovers from his beating, Buford makes himself a wooden club and then goes back to the Lucky Spot.  After beating everyone up with his club, Buford takes back the money that he lost while playing cards and $50.00 to cover his medical bills.  When Buford is put on trial for armed robbery, he takes the stand, rips off his shirt, and shows the jury his scars.  Buford is acquitted.

Over his wife’s objections, Buford decides to run for sheriff.  The old sheriff, not appreciating the competition, attempts to assassinate Buford but, instead, ends up dying himself.  Buford is charged with murder.  Buford is acquitted.  Buford is elected sheriff.  Buford sets out to clean up his little section of Tennessee.  Violence follows…

On the one hand, it’s easy to be snarky about a film like Walking Tall.  This is one of those films that operates on a strictly black-and-white world view.  Anyone who supports Buford is good.  Anyone who opposes Buford is totally evil.  Buford is a redneck saint.  It’s a film fueled by testosterone and it’s not at all subtle…

But dangit, I liked Walking Tall.  It’s a bit like a right-wing version of Billy Jack, in that it’s so sincere that you can forgive the film’s technical faults and frequent lapses in logic.  Walking Tall was filmed on location in Tennessee and director Phil Karlson makes good use of the rural locations.  And, most importantly, Joe Don Baker was the perfect actor to play Buford Pusser.  As played by Baker, Pusser is something of renaissance redneck.  He’s a smart family man who knows how to kick ass and how to make his own weapons.  What more could you ask for out of a small town sheriff?

In real life, Buford Pusser died in a mysterious car accident shortly after the release of Walking Tall.  Cinematically, the character of Buford Pusser went on to star in two more films.

Film Review: Lost River (dir by Ryan Gosling)


Lost River

I had high hopes for Lost River.  Not only is it the directorial debut of one of my favorite actors, Ryan Gosling, but it was also booed at Cannes.  Some of the best and most interesting films ever made have been booed at Cannes.  The reviews that I had read of Lost River indicated that the film was a mess but it was, at the very least, a visually intriguing mess.  I was expecting the film to be pure style over substance but you know what?  I like style.

So, with all that in mind, I finally got a chance to sit down and watch Lost River last night and … bleh.  It’s not a terrible film.  You can watch it and feel that Ryan Gosling does have some promise as a director, if not as a writer.  (Along with directing, he also wrote the film’s screenplay.)  There are some nicely surreal images, though almost all of them appear to have been borrowed from other better films and, as a result, even the strangest of images are rather familiar.  (To be truly impressed by Lost River, it helps to have never seen anything directed by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, David Lynch, or Terrence Malick.)  He gets a memorably unhinged performance from the great Ben Mendelsohn but then again, when hasn’t Mendelsohn given a memorably unhinged performance?

Anyway, Lost River takes place in Detroit, presumably because Detroit features a lot of dilapidated neighborhoods that look interesting on film and allow Gosling to pretend that his film is about America urban decay.  Billy (Christina Hendricks) is on the verge of losing her house but, with the help of sleazy bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), Billy gets a job working as a performer at a club.  At the club, she and Cat (Eva Mendes) perform elaborate routines which always end with them pretending to die in some excessively brutal and bloody way.  The club’s largely affluent audience loves it.  Dave loves it so much that he’s inspired to sing a song on stage.  Later on in the film, Dave does an elaborate dance because every independent film has to feature an out-of-nowhere elaborate dance.

Meanwhile, Billy’s son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), is trying to raise money to save the house by stealing copper out of abandoned buildings.  However, this gets him in trouble with Bully (Matt Smith, struggling to speak with an American accent), a psychopath who has declared his section of Detroit to be “Bullytown.”  Bully rides around in a convertible, sitting on a throne that’s been attached to the back seat.  When Bully discovers that Bones has been stealing copper from buildings in Bullytown, Bully declares that Bones must die.

(At some point, you have to wonder if Bully was doomed from the minute that his parents decided to name him Bully.  Maybe if they had named him The Doctor, he could have lived a very different life.)

Living next door to Billy and Bones is Rat (Saorise Ronan, who gives a good performance and deserves better than this role).  Rat is called Rat because she owns a pet rat that’s named Nick.  Got all that?  Rat also lives with her grandmother (Barbara Steele), who never speaks but spends all of her time watching old home movies.  Why would you cast an icon like Barbara Steele and then not allow her to do anything other than sit in a chair and silently stare at a television?

If Lost River was just an exercise in pure style, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more.  I would much rather a film be too obscure as opposed to being too obvious.  Unfortunately, while Gosling the director is having a lot of fun being as stylish as he can be, Gosling’s the screenwriter proves himself to be heavy-handed and patronizing.  By setting the film in Detroit and having random characters show up to talk about how America is dying and the poor are getting poorer while the rich get richer, Gosling lets us know that Lost River is meant to be more than just an exercise in technique.

The problem is that, as well-intentioned as Gosling may be, you can’t help but get the feeling that he has absolutely no idea what it’s like to be poor or what it’s like to live in a dying American city.  According to the 2010 census, 82.7% of Detroit’s population is African-American.  If you’re making a movie the deals, no matter how strangely, with what it’s like to be poor and desperate in Detroit, why would you decide to exclusively cast affluent-looking Caucasians in all of the main roles?  The few black characters who appear in Lost River are largely there to either comfort or share wisdom with the main white characters before then quickly moving on, never to be seen again after their minute or so of screen time.  It comes across as being condescending in only the way something written by a wealthy white guy can be.

Lost River is a misfire, an attempt by a filmmaker to try to make a statement about something that he really doesn’t seem to know much about.  Judging from the film’s visuals, Gosling has some promise as a director but, in the future, he should probably try to work with a better screenwriter.  If you don’t listen to the dialogue and just consider the film as an exercise in visuals, it’s mildly diverting.  (That said, even the nonstop parade of surreal images gets boring after a while.)  Lost River is not terrible.  It’s just bleh.