Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Evictors (1979)

If you have been reading my reviews for any length of time (and a big thank you to all five of you who have remained stalwart in that capacity), then you know of my distaste for the great outdoors in general and the less civilized areas of same in particular (the size and amount of which are expanding exponentially, especially in more populated areas, in my humble opinion).  Even so, swamps and bayous fascinate me.  It’s not that I have any desire to ever visit one and get eaten alive by any of a cavalcade of animals either predatory or parasitic, but they do have a particularly beautiful look to them, don’t you agree?  They can be as alluring as they are forbidding.  Like the angler fish or the pitcher plant, it would be easy to be lured into a fen just by following your sense of wonder for nature (not necessarily because a swamp smells good enough to eat, though, I’d wager) only to have the deadly trap sprung faster than you can say “gator bait” and wind up as bulk in some animal’s stool.  I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility that you could be rescued by, say, Swamp Thing or Man-Thing, and many people have proven that one could even live and thrive in marshland, but I tend to think my luck wouldn’t hold out.  It’s the optimist in me.

The late Charles B Pierce’s The Evictors (aka Leadsville Nights) opens in 1928 in Shreveport, Louisiana, as the Monroe clan is (not so ironically enough) being evicted from their home.  Naturally, the Monroe’s disagree with the bank’s claim, and they open fire on the banker (Jesse Cagle), G-Men (Owen Guthrie, Thomas Ham, Ron White), and assorted deputies who are there to enforce the eviction notice.  Needless to say, things don’t exactly pan out for the Monroes.  Fast forward to 1942, as local realtor Jake Rudd (Vic Morrow) accompanies young couple Ruth and Ben Watkins (Jessica Harper and Michael Parks, respectively) as they begin the process of moving into the old Monroe house.  Soon, a creeper who looks suspiciously like Dwayne Monroe (Glen Roberts) starts popping up and menacing Ruth, and not even wheelchair-bound neighbor Olie Gibson (Sue Ane Langdon) may be able to help.

 Much like Mr. Pierce’s more famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) films, The Legend Of Boggy Creek, Boggy Creek 2: And The Legend Continues, and The Town That Dreaded Sundown, this one starts off with the claim (or disclaimer?) that the events depicted are based on a true story.  Leapfrogging off the Docudrama genre, The Evictors emphasizes the idea of storytelling, itself.  As the plot trots along, we are treated to multiple flashbacks detailing the history of the Watkins’s new house since the Monroes were ousted.  This device performs multiple duties.  One, it gives us some exposition to try to piece together just what’s going on (though, honestly, there is very little mystery in the film to be sussed out).  Two, it gives us foreshadowing and builds some tension as to what is waiting in the wings for Ruth and Ben.  Three, it gives us a little bit of action and violence to hold over the more bloodthirsty in the audience (though, honestly, there is very little [if any] bloodshed on screen to be ogled).  

Of course, like any story told enough times, the details are bound to change, the original meaning muddied or lost altogether.  Pierce allows the flashbacks to play out but is always sure to remind us that what we have been seeing is being related by other characters who should not have been present to witness the scenes described and (we assume) were told these stories by someone else who was also not present when they took place, in all likelihood.  Aside from the fact that other owners of the house died, we cannot necessarily assume that they were killed by one of the Monroes (though the implication is definitely there).  By that same token, we can also make the assumption that there is a chance that not only are the flashbacks truthful but also could possibly be giving us more information than is present in the stories as told around the town.  In this way, then, they are fact and fiction, historical truth and urban legend.

The film also deals to some degree with the notion of the American Dream becoming the American Nightmare.  The Monroes owned their house, surely a component of their own dream.  Yet, for whatever reason, this dream becomes a nightmare when they are evicted.  Not only do they lose the house, but they come to physical harm when they fight against their eviction.  Likewise, the couples who inhabit the house after the Monroes are also starting from the perspective of the American Dream (and let’s just take it as given that owning one’s own house is part of the American Dream or at the absolute least was some years back).  And they all meet their deaths for stealing someone else’s dream, turning their own to nightmares.  There is also a facet at work that the house itself may be haunted and stands on cursed earth, though it’s never really explored, just sort of mentioned.

The Evictors plays with themes about the corruption of traditional values as embodied predominantly in the character of Ruth Watkins.  She and Ben are seemingly the perfect couple.  They are young, hard-working, honest, and pleasant.  Outwardly, there is no reason whatsoever given by the filmmakers to not like these two.  Yet, they are abjured by just about all the local townsfolk.  The audience knows there is no reason for such treatment, so the problem must be with the locals, not Ruth and Ben.  That the couple desires to be accepted by the people who are signified as having the actual problem is exactly what will pollute the Watkins’s values and drag them down.  Ben is offered draft deferment and a large bonus in return for working long hours, in some capacity turning away from the idea of service to his country in a time of war to further his personal gain and by extension neglecting his wife and leaving her vulnerable to dangers both emotional and physical.  Ruth learns to shoot a gun, a trait which she takes to like a duck to water but which  is a non-traditional proficiency for a woman (at least for the time the film is set and for the sort of background Ruth seems to come from but not necessarily for the story’s location or for all women, certainly).  These factors add up over the course of the film, culminating in a conclusion perhaps best described as mildly apocryphal.

With that in mind, I need to get something off my chest in regards to this film.  When everything is finally revealed, the effect was not one of discovery for me, it was instead one of indifference.  None of what goes on in the film is anything other than what it appears to be.  We know within just a few minutes of screentime how the entirety of the story will play out, what twists are going to pop up, and when they will do so.  The only two reasons I stuck around were to find out if I could possibly be wrong and receive a pleasant surprise (which didn’t happen) and because the technical level of filmmaking is indeed quite accomplished.  It’s like finding out that the woman you dig has inexplicably taken up with some chump you know for a stone fact is worthless, but there is nothing you can do, because the choices made that created the situation were not yours to make.  Your choice is how to react (or not react, which as we all know is also a reaction, anyway) afterward. 

MVT:  The acting in the film from the main performers is spot-on, and the players appeared to care about the material (and if they didn’t I perceived no indication, thus reinforcing my claim that the acting in the film is very good).  

Make Or Break:  The Break for me is the big disclosure scene, and that’s because there is decidedly nothing in the least disclosed that I didn’t already know.  There is no surprise in this surprise, and it doesn’t even add a little bit of color to make the non-reveals vary even slightly from what I knew was going to be revealed. 

Score:  6/10

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