[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 movie The Rain People is generally referred to as one of the director’s “personal” films, by which is presumably meant (1) that the story was Coppola’s own and (2) that he didn’t have nearly the bucks which Paramount Pictures supplied for likely moneymaking projects such as The Godfather. In light of this, it is not surprising that The Rain People is a quiet, modestly conceived film revolving around a minimum of characters whose problems are pretty much everybody’s problems. Alienation and lack of communication are key themes, and The Rain People, if less socially relevant than The Conversation, seems to be a psychologically more credible examination of the things that tend to keep people apart.
Often, in both The Rain People and The Conversation, it appears that there is a kind of invisible, repellent force field which stands between Coppola’s characters and prevents them from ever really reaching out beyond themselves. In The Rain People the main character, Natalie, is a young-but-pushing-middle-age woman who one morning just ups and leaves her husband, gets into the car, and starts driving. She picks up a hitchhiker (James Caan) who, she soon discovers, is an ex–football player named Killer pretty well mentally incapacitated by a past head injury. He is now able to do little more than stand by the side of the road with his thumb in the air and hope somebody stops. Natalie does. But when she finds out that Killer is helpless and that she is now more or less saddled with looking out for his welfare (seeing as how nobody else seems to be), she is repulsed. She wants no part of him. His presence implies responsibility, which is what she is trying to escape from. And yet they continue to drift along, vaguely together, as if on separate but parallel planes, Natalie never touching, or, more precisely, never wanting to touch.
With her husband Vinny, the separateness is even more pronounced. Indeed, we never really see him except briefly in a flashback. He is merely a distant, often unintelligible voice on the other end of the line. We repeatedly view Natalie in various out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere phonebooths mumbling into the receiver. Ostensibly, she is talking to Vinny, but we soon get the feeling that for all it matters she might just as well be talking to herself. Again, conversing with Gordon the motorcycle cop (Robert Duvall) in the darkness of his sleazy trailer-house, Natalie remarks that it is so like talking on the telephone. There is no real burden of direct communication.
But for all the bleakness inherent in their isolation from one another (and, in some sense, from themselves: Natalie develops a troubling habit of referring to herself in the third person), Coppola’s characters remain sympathetic. He seems too genuinely interested in his people to let them slide, fashionably, off the existential deep end. He may get melodramatically “heavy” at times, but he makes no real pretensions about being “deep,” as, say, Frank Perry in such superficially intellectual movies as Play It As It Lays. While Perry shows us mainly how selfish, blind, and unfeeling people can be—and how this leads quite naturally to suicide or insanity, take your pick—Coppola attempts to explore more positive regions of existence. Although Natalie’s aimless journey is nothing but a series of arbitrary encounters with perfect strangers, the arbitrariness never quite edges over into nihilism. In fact—perhaps the story’s major irony—it is precisely through arbitrary acts that Natalie begins to find, excuse me, Meaning once again. Thus, while picking up a hitchhiker from alongside the road might be a fitting image for casting one’s fate to the winds of Chance, it is in fact Killer who finally elicits human responses from Natalie.
Natalie, then, is lonely, but she is not Alone in the hip nihilistic manner of Joan Didion’s characters as seen through the eyes of Perry. Further, her loneliness has intent. Getting away from Vinny—who over the phone sounds like a 1969 prototypical male chauvinist pig—is a conscious choice made by Natalie with the idea of finding out just who she might be if given a respite from the daily housewife routine. She drifts; but far from drifting with existential heavies, she falls in with motorcycle cops and brain-scarred ex–football heroes. She may have her just-discovered pregnancy aborted, but we are spared the pointed sickness of a fetus being tossed into the garbage pail like an empty milk carton.
Not to say that Coppola remains necessarily “low-keyed,” or that he never strives for jarring effect. His use of flashbacks is particularly effective in providing contrasts or pointing out ironies which otherwise might have remained only implied, or altogether invisible. As Killer’s old girlfriend Ellen denounces Killer before her family and Natalie as an idiot incapable of anything but raking dead leaves, Coppola repeatedly cuts to a scene in which a younger Ellen and a pre-accident Killer are wildly making love in the backseat of Killer’s car. At the film’s beginning, as we watch Natalie wander listlessly from one empty motel room to another, we see quick flashbacks of lovemaking with Vinny just after their marriage. And finally, as the story concludes, the visual mixture of Killer’s attack on Gordon with glimpses of bodies thudding together on the football field is simply chilling (as well as evocative of Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 film This Sporting Life, which Coppola seems to have had in mind).
The Rain People has some strong visual moments which stand out vividly in the memory long after the image has faded from the screen. For me, it is hard to top the thematic coherence of the scene in which Natalie is talking on the phone to Vinny for the last time, whereupon the line goes suddenly dead and we cut to a medium shot of Killer standing like a little boy with the telephone wire which he has just ripped from the booth in his hot little hand. All at once, with one visual blow, we are struck with just how frail and tenuous is (was) the relationship between Natalie and Vinny. One quick jerk and their line of communication is literally as well as figuratively snapped. And although there is something perhaps a bit too neatly ironical about Killer being given the job of taking care of a bunch of “dumb animals” at the roadside zoo, the image of all those seeming millions of eerily cooing chicks inside the shed sticks hauntingly in the mind.
Killer himself is an interesting creation. His alienation is more pronounced, if no more real, than Natalie’s, because he lacks even the instinct for self-preservation. Coppola, however, seems to play a little too heavily on Killer’s supposed naïveté, and too often Killer becomes the mouthpiece for heavy, out-of-the-mouths-of-babes thematic statements. It is Killer who recites the parable of the Rain People who are beautiful but cry themselves away—as he and Natalie drive along to who-knows-where in their quest for they’re-not-sure-what. “But they’re real!” Killer insists, referring to the Rain People, and of course they are real, because he and Natalie are members of that rare species as they drift aimless and empty though vacant landscapes and towns which are peopled by passing parades and strange faces. But surely, we say, Killer isn’t perceptive enough to realize the truth in what he is saying. Or is he? Just how much does Killer realize about the nature of his and Natalie’s isolation? Coppola keeps it ambiguous, sometimes irritatingly so because the ambiguity is never cleared up. On the one hand we see Killer flashing his thousand dollars around like a kid who has just been rewarded for some good and obedient act (in fact the money is a payoff from his alma mater—they’re embarrassed to have him around), but on the other hand he seems just a bit too profoundly ingenuous when he remarks to Natalie when she finds him at the bus depot that he’s not waiting for a bus: he’s just waiting, because that’s what everyone else seems to be doing around here.
THE RAIN PEOPLE
Screenplay, Direction, and Production: Francis Ford Coppola. Cinematography: Wilmer Butler. Editing: Blackie Malkin. Music: Ronald Stein.
The Players: Shirley Knight (Hopkins), James Caan, Robert Duvall, Marya Zimmer, Tom Aldredge.
Copyright © 1974 Rick Hermann