Good little naturalistic thought provoker ___ 8/10
Ellen Burstyn’s character, “Georgiana Carr,” bears the last name of an actual Durham, N.C., family that was prominent in the tobacco business. The large portrait in her house, showing a uniformed man with a big white mustache, is a picture of Julian Shakespeare Carr (1845-1924), one of Durham’s earliest tobacco magnates, who was involved in a variety of other business enterprises and was a highly regarded philanthropist. The portrait normally resides in the North Carolina Collection of the Durham County Public Library.
Colin Firth … Gus Leroy
Ellen Burstyn … Georgiana Carr
Patricia Clarkson … Willa Jenkins
Orlando Bloom … Harris Parker
Amber Tamblyn … Mary Saunders
Margo Martindale … Myrtle Parker
Andrew McCarthy … Howard Mercer
Victoria Clark … Miriam
Isiah Whitlock Jr. … Mayor
Tom Wopat … Frank
Hardly anyone will watch this semidocumentary-style movie despite the fact that it features two Academy Award-winning actors (Colin Firth and Ellen Burstyn), an Academy award actor nominee (Patricia Clarkson), an Emmy winning actress (Margo Martindale) and an Academy Award-winning writer (Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird). I would love to learn how the movie was conceived and then how it was developed as a property for such a distinguished cast and a virtually unknown director (John Doyle).
I can see it materializing from the moral strength and artistic presence of writer Foote, but who knew whom and why were they assembled such? Horton Foote (1916-2009) is a true literary icon of screen and stage, which you can surmise from these quotes on IMDb:
I’d always write a play that would be successful and critically accepted. I’m always surprised at the reaction, good or bad. The last few years, critics have, on the whole, been very kind to me, but in writing I can’t think about commercial things. It’d be the wrong end of the stick, so to speak. I’ve lived long enough to know things go in and out of fashion, and things not well received now can be totally reversed years later.
I believe very deeply in the human spirit, and I have a sense of awe about it. I look around and ask, What makes the difference? What is it? I’ve known people the world has thrown everything at—to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and they don’t ask quarters. I’m a social writer in the sense that I want to record, but not in the sense of trying to change people’s minds.
That truly says a lot about the creator of this small work and about the work itself, which is written in a naturalistic or slice-of-life, realism style: Durham, North Carolina, is a dying town, at least the downtown area is. The writer and director guide us through a day in the lives of some of the key characters and, then, same thing for some of the minor characters, the mayor and the town leaders… who are charged with the all too common task these days in America of keeping the community solvent and together against all odds.
One night, of a sudden, the wind blows in a tall Texas stranger (Gus Leroy (Colin Firth)) with three trucks and a load of barrels, delivered straight to a warehouse in the middle of the old city. The building, it turns out, is owned by the widow of a tobacco-tycoon heir, and Gus has a deal with her (Georgiana Carr (Ellen Burstyn)) to rent the space for a few months to store ‘toxic waste.’ [We never find out the exact nature of the waste, or what makes it particularly toxic. This nebulous, ominous quality of an unknown hazard coming to town, which the the leaders and citizens of the town have to somehow deal with, permeates the entire story.]
On the younger-generation end of the town figures lie the local peace officer (Harris Parker (Orlando Bloom)), an all-round decent fellow who wants to stay in the town and better himself by earning a law degree. Part of his vision is to court, marry, and settle down with Mary Saunders (Amber Tamblyn). Mary on the other hand disdains the whole small dying-town scene and clings to hopes of being taken away from it through either hooking up in a serious relationship with an affluent lover (Howard Mercer (Andrew McCarthy)) or simply moving away to Atlanta, getting out of Dodge City entirely.
The movie has not so much a plot as a weaving of key relationships, as Gus tries to shepherd the toxic waste deal into a more permanent arrangement between his Texas company and the town of Durham. Georgiana is on hard times, which is partly why she agreed to lease her warehouse; Georgiana’s daughter, Willa (Patricia Clarkson), takes a jaundiced view of the whole toxic waste business, and, initially, Mr. Gus Leroy, too. All these connections are played with finesse and professionalism by some very fine actors. [Though I have to say Firth gives as poor a Texan accent/ demeanor as Bloom gives an outstanding North Carolina one.]
Why is this a good movie? Why do I regard it as a four-star when IMDb gives it a 4.8 ranking, equivalent to two stars? Well, except for the Firth hiccup on the Texan-authenticity meter—really difficult to understand for such a remarkable talent—the acting is stellar. And the characters they are acting out are real and believable; the writer takes no easy way out, either with misplaced romanticism or overwrought demonization of those who handle earth-unfriendly products in a less-than-candid manner. What results is then a series of rather deep, complex character studies: from Georgiana Carr to Harris Parker’s mother (Margo Martindale) to, well, all the principals. That’s what makes the film completely fascinating and worth multiple watches.
So go for it. Plenty of source for artistic appreciation. Great writing.
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