Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Film Review: ALAMO BAY (1985, Louis Malle)

Stars: 3.9 of 5.
Running Time: 98 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan (NOWHERE TO HIDE, THE PRINCE OF PENNSYLVANIA), Ho Nguyen (FINAL VERDICT), Donald Moffat (THE THING, TALES OF THE CITY), Caroline Williams (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, THE STEPFATHER 2), Music by Ry Cooder. Written by Alice Arlen (SILKWOOD, THE WEIGHT OF WATER).
Tag-line: "Alamo Bay. A place where everyone risked everything for a piece of the American Dream."
Best one-liner: "Communist cunt!" Wow. Said by Harris to Madigan.

More in the vein of his working-class documentaries than his arthouse fare, Louis Malle's ALAMO BAY was unjustly maligned by critics at the time of its release and has basically languished in obscurity ever since. I'm not suggesting that Malle is one of the most perceptive commentators on race in America, or that this film isn't at times a little ham-fisted in its approach (i.e., climactic shootouts), but there's a lot to like here. Ed Harris plays a racist Nam vet who wears confederate flag hats, works on a boat named the "American Dream Girl," and has the beard of a sub commander.

Ed is one of my favorite actors, and I was fully expecting to see glimpses of his now-classic 'Ed Harris as a crazed madman' role. Instead, Ed delves deeply and delivers a performance where he doesn't quite seem like himself at all- he genuinely transforms into a terrifying, real-McCoy redneck.

He and a bunch of other white guys are fairly rankled that a bunch of Vietnamese immigrants are shrimping in their waters. At first, they have valid concerns- the newcomers engage in overfishing and ignore just about every rule and regulation. Of course, the native Texans haven't got a moral leg to stand on as soon as they make it 100% racial, enlist the aid of the KKK (via right-wing grassroots organizing), and start wavin' the guns around.

Donald Moffat plays a grizzled, well-meaning, cigar-chomping entrepreneur who runs the only fishery that'll employ (or is that exploit?) the Vietnamese.

Moffat weighs some shrimp.

Amy Madigan plays Moffat's resolute daughter and Ed's old flame (by the way, Ed and Amy are real-life husband and wife, and there's genuine, scary chemistry),

a delicate predicament which could explode into violence at any moment, given the community's volatility.

Ed dances for the first time since CREEPSHOW.

Ho Nguyen plays a newly-arrived immigrant whose callow enthusiasm belies his unwavering resolve; he's not about to let a bunch of douches with guns rule his life- he's already lived that nightmare before.

Ho, like the rest of us, is transfixed by the natural electromagnetic energy that flows between Madigan and Harris.

Malle imparts his tale with quotidian realism: failing to obtain a loan at the bank, striking nets and sorting shrimp at sea, knockin' back a few Lone Stars at the bar... it's extremely vivid, and you can almost feel the briny sting of the seawater or smell that foul miasma of oily, piscine, sweaty deck odors mixed with the remnants of stale cigarettes.

And in the world of ALAMO BAY, everyone has a got a beer in their hand at all times. Driving? Have a beer. Working? Have two. Going to church? You're gonna need a bunch of beers. You'd almost think this was a utopia if it wasn't for all the hate crimes.

Ry Cooder's score is decent, but phoned in to the max– it's nearly an exact retread of his work on PARIS, TEXAS. He was generally making a much greater effort on the Walter Hill films of the day. Although, who knows? Maybe Malle told him to senselessly plagiarize himself. Also of note is a bit part by native Texan Caroline Williams (Stretch from TEXAS CHAINSAW 2, Lady in Truck from THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, etc.) as a xenophobic bar waitress.

Caroline Williams serves some ice cold Lone Stars to some grassroots KKKers. Note the light-up Schlitz sign.

In all, an atmospheric social drama which certainly deserves to be seen. Nearly four stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

I've seen this appearing on my cable TV schedule every so often but have, for some odd reason, avoided it despite the presence of Ed Harris. I have to say your review has me intrigued. I may have to give it a spin. Wow, a redneck Harris? Who woulda thunk?

Sean Gill said...

It's presently on Netflix watch instantly if you've got that. I had pretty low expectations but found it to be a rather solid entry for both Malle's and Harris' respective oeuvres. Plus I'm always a sucker for Caroline Williams, no matter how small the role.