Monday, September 28, 2009

Film Review: STRAIGHT TIME (1978, Ulu Grosbard)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 114 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Writers Eddie Bunker, Jeffrey Boam (THE LOST BOYS, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE), and an uncredited Michael Mann. Starring Dustin Hoffmann, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, Jake Busey, M. Emmet Walsh, Theresa Russell. Damn, what a cast!
Tag-line: "Please God, don't let him get caught."

STRAIGHT TIME is yet another one of those excellent, underrated crime dramas that seemed to flow so effortlessly out of the 1970's. Based on Eddie Bunker's novel NO BEAST SO FIERCE, it's a rumination on a life lived in and out of institutions: compelled to submit to Draconian rules and forced to undergo humiliation after humiliation until the core is so deadened that nothing even matters any more.

'Prison' and 'freedom' become just two sides of the same fucked-up coin to him. Bunker's work is completely earnest and always has the ring of truth to it- there are no one-dimensional characters here, and it's exceptionally well-acted.

Bunker in a brief role as, basically, himself.

Dustin Hoffman (who, from accounts, co-directed, and originally bought the film rights to Bunker's novel) is our recently-released career thief who genuinely sets out with the intention of going straight. M. Emmet Walsh is the slimy parole officer with an occasional glimmer of 'straight talk' humanity, but who ultimately enjoys being a cog in a wheel of a rotten system.

Gary Busey is a shaggy old buddy who appears to lead a squeaky-clean life (with long-suffering wife Kathy Bates and real-life son, Jake), but who's ready to cook up some H in a spoon as soon as the missus turns her back.

Theresa Russell is a spunky temp agency clerk who strikes up rapport and romance with our hero.

Even at the tender age of 20, Russell possesses the presence and depth of an actress far beyond her years: I'm reminded of Lauren Bacall storming the industry at 19 with complete poise and assurance- Russell's truly one of the greats. And she does her thing in a role that now, in 2009, would be a complete throwaway 'girlfriend' part. Harry Dean Stanton plays a sidekick who's as at home singing "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane" with an acoustic guitar as he is terrorizing a bank with a sawed-off shotgun.

"How was I, was I good?" -"You scared the shit outta me!"

Every character seems like a real person- there's no 'too cool' antiheroes or satanic bad guys, and that's, in short, why it works.

For more of Bunker's potent artistry, see RUNAWAY TRAIN and ANIMAL FACTORY.

-Sean Gill

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