[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]
Slither ends up being one of the major disappointments of the season because, for about half its length, it promises to be one memorable movie, and once it starts falling apart we experience a very painful sense of the diminution of large possibilities. James Caan plays a former high-school football star and unsuccessful car thief who, freshly out of prison, reluctantly pauses to have a beer with a fellow parolee and finds himself cast in a giddy American nightmare. Unseen assassins shoot up a sealed house in a golden-sunlit, bee-buzzy corner of the South while a golfing commentary drones on TV; a dying man passes on a name and an address ostensibly worth a fortune, then blows himself to smithereens; a farmer gives a hitchhiker a lift, then drops him off in the middle of nowhere because he doesn’t share the farmer’s economic burdens; a barefoot iconoclast with her whole world in the back of her station wagon picks up the hero, beds him at a motel after making sure he doesn’t have VD, then scares him by trying to hold up an all-night diner…. It goes like that, eccentric but not quite senseless, charged with intuitions of a rampant American madness that fairly emanates from train depots, dusty roads, potato cellars, trailer parks, noontime offices. A comically sinister potentiality pervades everything and everybody while—this is the best part—never giving the feeling that it’s all some sort of Message for us.
The film doesn’t turn message-y toward the end. Instead, somewhat like Sleuth, it abandons its disturbing aura of intuition for a shockingly ordinary explication and conclusion. The explanation makes nonsense of the whole preceding narrative, and I can’t see much point in entertaining a hypothesis that that’s some kind of Brechtian device. It smacks strongly of “what the hell, we gotta end it somehow.” The director, making his feature debut, worked on some of those superb Alka-Seltzer commercials on telly, and naturally that has let him in for some easy digs from reviewers. Surprisingly, very little of the film exhibits their visual finesse, and several bits that do—a freaky moment in the diner’s restroom, some business about throwing away a gum wrapper, a nice paranoid moment involving a suburban jogger—have been specifically claimed by star James Caan. Caan’s trademark edginess is right for the part, Peter Boyle is very funny as a small-town bandleader, master of ceremonies, and self-styled criminal brain, and the film’s bogeymen are ingeniously cast for a combined sense of desperate ferocity and funky haplessness. Sally Kellerman, like the film, tends to leave one with an aftertaste of frustration and exasperation: except for Robert Altman, directors go on employing her as a readily exploitable index of walking weirdness. She could do more. So, I had hoped, could Slither. But if you were to leave in the middle, you might spend the rest of your life giving it the benefit of the doubt and wondering how that really neat movie came out.
Direction: Arnold Zieff. Screenplay: W.D. Richter. Cinematography: László Kovács.
The Players: James Caan, Peter Boyle, Sally Kellerman, Louise Lasser, Allen Garfield, Alex Rocco, Richard B. Shull.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson