Sunday, March 8, 2009
A Vision Of A Vanished America
It’s now over ten years since a new film by Michael Cimino played theaters—that was THE SUNCHASER, which barely got any sort of release as it was. But even after all this time, I still don’t quite know what to make of his body of work and that was still the case for me at a recent Cinematheque screening of THE DEER HUNTER, after which I left the Egyptian slightly in awe but also not quite knowing just how to react. Now that I’ve seen THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, his 1974 directorial debut that he also wrote, the mystery of just what his films are continues for me, even though this one was actually a hugely enjoyable surprise. It’s definitely the most likable of any of his films and made me take notice of a small theme that runs through some of them, one that pays a certain amount of attention to the vast middle of the country with a feel for the landscape, the mountains, as well as a person’s relation to the vast landscape that’s around them. “Let’s see what’s over the next mountain” is a key line here and feels like an idea that he can relate to more than anything.
As he is delivering his sermon, a minister (Clint Eastwood) in a tiny church is ambushed by a gunman. Attempting to flee, he winds up in a car recently stolen by a young drifter named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). It us eventually revealed that he is actually a thief in hiding who goes by the name Thunderbolt and the two take off together with no real destination in mind. Though Thunderbolt is hesitant to take him up on his offer of partnership, he sticks close to the kid, aware that a few other members of his old gang are after him. When Thunderbolt attempts to retrieve the money he had hidden in a one-room schoolhouse, he discovers the building gone and when the remaining gang members (George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis) turn up to take care of him, Lightfoot comes up with a new plan for them to team up to rob the same place and this time make sure that they hang onto the money.
The heist plotline makes it feel slightly like a Don Siegel film, but a looser, more idiosyncratic film than that director normally made, with some unusual and at times striking location work out there in Montana. THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT takes it sweet time getting going with much of the first act spent just watching the two leads getting to know each. But something about the easy going nature of the film meant that by fifteen minutes in, for me watching it was like wearing a favorite old comfortable shirt and by the time we got to the heist I was fully invested in these guys. The mechanics of the heist are well put together and clearly defined, with the use of a cannon to break into the vault that a lot of the ad campaign looks to have been centered around (since it’s the early 70s there’s lots of car chase action too) but what’s best about the film is its easygoing, likable nature that feels wedded to the land its set in, with even the bad guys played by Kennedy and Lewis treated in a way that feels a little endearing. Interestingly the only people the film seems to treat as solely comical figures are the various married couples who pop up throughout, with the best laugh involving the mother worried about her daughter who’s ‘just a baby’, almost as if they deserve such treatment for settling down and giving up on the possibility of drifting from one mountain to the next. It’s a very enjoyable movie, no doubt about it, but there’s also a melancholy vibe, as if it’s acknowledging the price that’s paid for spending so much time the road at the expense of settling down. The film never seems to comment on this outside of the terrific Paul Williams song, “Where Do I Go From Here” but it’s there if you’re willing to read between the lines and listen to the pauses in dialogue spoken by Clint Eastwood’s Thunderbolt, who is at first hesitant to get mixed up with Lightfoot’s earnest overtures towards partnership for no reason other than saying, “Kid, you’re ten years too late.” That wistfulness that you could find in so many movies of the seventies that usually aren’t thought of as being anything more than just “fun” is something that really is unfortunately missing from films these days.
Eastwood and Bridges (Oscar nominated for this) are both terrific, with great chemistry and each jumping in from the very beginning with fully realized characterizations for these guys—sure, we’ve often seen Bridges as a likable character but how often has Eastwood been so effortlessly easygoing? Kennedy and Lewis have a surprising Laurel and Hardy vibe to a few of their scenes together (particularly when Lewis works as an ice cream man) but they pull off a perfect balance of making them funny, multi-dimensional and, when it’s necessary, genuinely threatening bad guys. Also sprinkled throughout the film are familiar faces, most of them well-billed in small bits with each giving the feeling that they are important in the worlds they occupy, including Catherine Bach (looking shockingly like Lindsay Lohan), “Garey” Busey, Burton Gilliam, Vic Tayback, Jack Dodson, Bill McKinney, Dub Taylor, Gregory Walcott and June Fairchild of PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW in a very funny scene with Eastwood involving the word “rape” that you could never get away with today. I can’t help but think of all these actors and associate them with a certain sign seen near the end of the film which mentions how something evokes “a vision of a vanished America” and how films today rarely seem to pause for such incidental characters, not to mention how rarely there are such juicy character roles for today’s equivalents of George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis.
The earnest, likable nature of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT sets it apart from most other films of this type from the early seventies and it seems particularly special as a result. It’s a shame that Michael Cimino never made a film in this type of vein again but as we all know he had a different path in mind. I don’t know where he is in the world right now—who does?—but maybe he’s just out there somewhere looking for what’s over the next mountain.