So in my continued obsession with the novels of Jim Thompson, I read this one—which is a bang up, can’t-put-it-down read—and scheduled movie night with my friend to include the film of it, which I had seen when it came out, and was eager to review having read the novel.
The movie begins with Jason Patric as Kevin Collins wandering alone down a desert road. His voice-over tells us he’s just drifting. At a bar he encounters this huge, studly bartender, and Rachel Ward as Fay. The bartender is impolite to Collins, and gets his clocks cleaned. Impressed, Fay picks him up off the road outside and takes him home, offering to let him stay with her. Maybe I should take this approach with more hot, swarthy hunks with severe mental issues.
For you see, Collins is a former boxer and is a sort of large, very simple guy. Fay takes to calling him “Collie,” explicitly making the connection that he seems like a big, dumb dog. Fay is a widow who has turned to near-constant drinking [although Ward never really seems that drunk]. She soon introduces Collie to Bruce Dern as Uncle Bud, who takes an immediate shine to Collie, and wants to include him in this plot they’re hatching, to kidnap a rich kid and collect the ransom. And you have to wonder why, exactly, they would want to draw a big dumb boob into their plans. What they don’t know is that Collie is much smarter than they think, and what they REALLY don’t count on is that he’s—
SPOILERS > > >
AN ESCAPED MENTAL PATIENT! And not only that, but one prone to sudden outbursts of severe violence. I remember finding this out the first time I saw the film, and having that moment of sudden excitement, knowing that this powder keg is going to COMBUST. So the plan is that Collie will impersonate the chauffeur that comes to pick up the kid. Collie realizes that Uncle Bud is setting him up to be the fall guy—that Bud will come in, “rescue” the kid, kill Collie, and collect the reward. Collie short-circuits this by initially kidnapping the wrong kid! Then he goes back and gets the right one. Once home, Collie reveals that he’s on to them, and soon after they learn that he’s late of the asylum, and realize that they are MAD FUCKED. The kidnappers who drew this doofus in to take the rap are now at the mercy of his whims, and oh by the way, he can kill a person with a single punch.
< < < SPOILERS END
I’m not going to tell you any of the numerous complications and twists that follow, because that just wouldn’t be right. The movie maintains the ambiguity of the Fay character, as it remains unclear until the final moments whether she is just an innocent pawn of Uncle Bud’s, or a real devious schemer. The movie builds—though not as well as the novel—to an unforeseen though inevitable ending that, as my friend said “makes the movie.”
Generally, a pretty good adaptation. The casting is good—Jason Patric is perfect, as he is able to convey that sense of being a big, mentally-unstable and quite dangerous doofus that is also incredibly sexy. And Patric is like tongue-hanging-out-of-mouth sexy in this movie—and it works for the character. One can only fantasize about having Streetcar-era Brando in this role, but Patric will do pretty well. Bruce Dern is also perfect as he’s conveys that cheesy, sleazy, none-to-bright “mastermind” the character needs. My only minor issue with the casting is that they were afraid to go trashy enough with Fay. In the novel she is a woman left rudderless in life after the death of her husband and DRUNK nearly every minute of the day. This helps explain why Bud is able to draw her into this plan. Here she’s just a little bit listless and bored, with an inexplicable Australian accent, and she works, just not quite as well as she could have, and it slightly, though not disastrously, skews the balance of the three characters.
It occurred to me while watching that the screenplay faces some challenges in adapting the novel, as the novel is first-person, and thus we are privy to Collie’s inner thoughts and suspicions long before they’re revealed in the film. Thus WE know what a powder keg he is right from the start of the novel, whereas we find out almost halfway through the film. It makes a difference, as the film loses that urgency from the start, but it’s a respectable decision that still works pretty well. The other difference is that in the novel we are with Collie’s thought process as he stays ahead of the others, and it leads to many satisfying moments while he’s playing dumb and watching the others try to have him on, knowing he’s just waiting to spring. Because of this, the film loses a wonderful scene from the book in which Bud is going on and on and on about how he always plays people honestly and likes to have everything square and on the board, but you know, some things have to go. The ending is not as thrilling as it was in the novel, but pretty good, and they found a good way to convey the complicated and internal final moment. Let’s just say that if you want to read the novel, you are in for a bang-up good time from beginning to end.
Anyway, a good, down and dirty crime movie with lots of exciting and unusual twists. Go for it.