If Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is one of the best American political novels, then writer-director Steven Zaillian may have delivered the least political film possible inspired by such a classic. Faithfully adapted by Zaillian, who reportedly avoided the 1949 film version in order to focus more in crafting his own vision, this latest iteration of All the King’s Men straddles the fence between drama and melodrama, between political intrigue and murky relationships, but mostly between being a legitimate epic and suffering from delusions of grandeur. Don’t get me wrong: This is a good film, or a well-made one at least, with another engaging performance from Sean Penn, who, in the past decade, has become one of the most gifted and dominating performers of his generation. And there are some moments here of genuine poetry, glimpses at a country and a way of life that exists more in the nostalgic hearts and minds of storytellers than it ever did in the real world. But it’s marked throughout by a detached coldness, and the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, causing the tale to shrink in the telling until all that’s left is an idea of the movie that might have been.
The film tells the story of Willie Stark (Penn), a low-level politician in Depression-era Louisiana who winds up becoming governor and drawing a lot of attention along the way for his shady ethics. The film begins in medias res, with Willie taking a midnight ride through the country, with assistant and general right-hand man Jack Burden (Jude Law) in tow. The action then jumps to five years earlier, when Jack was working for the local newspaper and Willie was just a state treasurer being walked all over by the big players in state politics. Penn plays a convincing bumpkin, his wild hair, Southern drawl, and exaggerated arm movements adding up to a likable but not very bright guy who can’t understand why people won’t just take his word and vote for him. He’s so shortsighted that he accepts an offer from Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), another local politico, to run for governor.
Tiny just wants Willie to split the vote, and when Willie finally realizes this, he awakens from the idealistic stupor that’s defined his weak campaign so far and begins to go on a tirade against Tiny and all the rest of the big boys that have been keeping down the poor and the ignorant. His first such speech is a remarkable moment, with Penn striding across a stage at a state fair, spewing brimstone, with a fire in his eyes and righteous anger in his voice as he addresses his fellow hicks and rednecks. Zaillian keeps the focus as much on the people as he does on Willie, with cinematographer Pawel Edelman capturing every frayed hem and hopeful eye cast on Willie. The speech is a moment of regrettable growth for Willie: He’s finally figured out how to capture the public’s attention and win an election, but he’ll never again have the honest belief in the system that propelled him to run for office in the first place. Zaillian preserves this small but defining trait from Warren’s story: Willie winds up ruling the state with an iron fist and almost no scruples whatsoever, but he started out wanting to do some actual good.
The film eventually catches up to that initial moonlight ride, and Willie and Jack pay a visit to Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who’s also Jack’s godfather. Willie’s under some severe political pressure and, when his efforts to recruit the judge to his causes fall flat, he instructs Jack to dig up some dirt on Irwin for leverage. Perhaps it’s a sign that Hopkins can do whatever he wants, but he never takes a stab at anything remotely resembling a Southern accent. Granted, his natural Welsh inflection is less distracting than Law’s muddled attempts to sound American, so maybe it’s for the best. Still, it’s a curious choice: Did Zaillian decide Hopkins’ Southern inflections weren’t authentic enough? Or did Hopkins not even want to try? Or was Donald Sutherland unable to take the part? Whatever. Hopkins brings gravitas to the role, but a decidedly European one.
It’s Jack’s attempts to unearth dirt on Judge Irwin that form the crux of the story, particularly in Warren’s novel, where Jack discourses at length about previous investigations into his own ancestry that first begin to form his beliefs about the unknowable but inevitable consequences to everyone’s actions. It’s a stirring subplot, but one that is easily excised in the process of turning a sprawling novel into a somewhat streamlined film. Jack’s digging into the past brings him back into contact with siblings Adam (Mark Ruffalo) and Anne (Kate Winslet) Stanton, childhood friends who get drawn into Willie’s dealings, and the growing web of deceit and abused relationships sets in motion a predictable but unfortunate series of events.
Law’s a fine enough actor, but he’s all wrong for the part, conveying too much of Jack’s distaste for most of the world around him and not enough of the passions that drive him. He’s just too British to be convincing as a young Southern man; he’s too light and airy, somehow not solid enough on screen. It would have been nice to see Ruffalo in the role, actually, or for that matter any other young actor who could pull off a Southern accent and create decent chemistry with Winslet (a task at which Law spectacularly fails). Penn’s performance overshadows the rest of the ensemble, but even he winds up taking a back seat to composer James Horner’s thundering score. The constant music stings and swelling strings sour more than a few moments, turning the dramatic into the melodramatic and not doing a fraction for the emotional development that could have been done with a more restrained score or even, dare I hope, a moment of silence.
Zaillian’s film aspires to some great heights, but becomes bogged down by everything from an acute awareness of its own importance to the film’s innate inability to reconcile itself with the novel’s true story. Warren’s book unfolds with a leisurely pace to match the region and the era, but Zaillian’s update has all (or most) of the facts but none of the heart. Ironically enough, the film’s emotional distance from the audience parallels with Warren’s original name for his hero: Willie Talos, named after the bronze man in Greek mythology who guarded the isle of Crete and hurled boulders at passing ships to ward them off. The entire film is Zaillian’s boulder, and the viewer never gets close enough to see anything other than a beautifully photographed but isolating story.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Fast Times in Southern Louisiana
Film | September 22, 2006 | Comments ()