Friday, April 27, 2012

Who'll Stop The Rain (1978)

I've been pulling up some old DVD and Video Risk reviews from the cybertomb that once was Hope you enjoy. This review was from October 2000.

"Who'll Stop the Rain," director Karel Reisz's 1978 film adaptation of Robert Stone's National-Book-Award winning novel is a relentless and deep journey into the slimy underbelly of heroin dealing. Populated with strong standout performances by both lead and supporting actors, "Who'll Stop the Rain" provides a fascinating glimpse into a world (hopefully) unknown to most viewers.

Nick Nolte's Vietnam-vet/merchant marine "Ray Hicks" states "All my life I've been taking shit from inferior people. No more." Ray Hicks' best friend is "John Converse" played by the magnificent Michael Moriarity. John is a war photographer who has to many dark mental images to deal with. The horror of war has fried John to a crisp. He turns to drugs as an escape and a business. John enlists his friend Ray into a plot to import some of China's finest heroin from Vietnam to Southern California. The intellectually inferior Ray falls for John's plotting and before the first two reels have passed finds himself in what Vincent DeNofrio's character in "Full Metal Jacket" called a "world of shit."

When I was 15 years old, I was run over and my pelvis was broken. I was given injections of Demerol every four hours. I grew to look forward to the needle. I understand how someone could become hooked on the needle. John Converse personally knows this feeling also. He rationalizes his drug use to justify profiting off of the weaknesses of others. Ray sees his move into this underworld endeavor as a way of gaining financial autonomy over those inferior people who have kept him down for so long. At the outset of their enterprise neither of these lost people are prepared for the toll that their decisions will exact from them. Their journey is horrifying, demeaning and ultimately redeeming.

Ray returns from Vietnam with several kilos of white powder. He goes to John's house to make the drop only to find that John has been kidnapped by a corrupt DEA agent (Anthony Zerbe) and his two henchmen (Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey). Ray sets off with John's wife, Marge (Tuesday Weld) on a voyage of discovery. Ray and Marge spend the rest of the movie trying to rescue John and avoid the corrupt cops. Along the way they run into numerous characters which provide the viewer with vignettes of the seductive and destructive side of heroin use. The most memorable set piece involved a rich couple (Charles Haid and Gail Strickland) who want to experience the big H for the first time.

Nick Nolte is so much more than a movie star. I have always been amazed at his range. Mr. Nolte is an actor. Many movie stars were once were actors, before they became Movie Stars, but Mr. Nolte is not one of those. He doesn't seem to have a stock set of mannerisms and facial tics that may be spotted in every movie, ALA Robert Redford. Nolte's Ray Hicks is a man who grows before our very eyes. This movie is his baptism of fire (see my "Cutter and Bone" review). The irony of his journey is that while he believes he has become his own boss through this drug deal, along the way he realizes that, once again, he is "taking shit off of inferior people," namely John Converse. His realization of this fact, and his no-holds-barred attempt to extricate himself from the mire he placed himself in moves the film to its powerful and haunting conclusion. Mr. Nolte's dedication to his craft is on shining display in this movie.

There are numerous standout performances in this movie. Tuesday Weld is very good as Marge Converse. Marge is a hardhearted, drug-dependant woman who has been betrayed by her husband and herself. She too accompanies Ray on a violent road to redemption. One of the nicest surprises for me were the outstanding supporting performances, especially Charles Haid and the three corrupt cops. Charles Haid appears in only one scene, and while his performance doesn't reach the one-scene-wonderfulness of Ned Beatty in "Network" it is nonetheless superb. The small touches that director Reisz achieved such as Mr. Haid's cameo make this movie a rich tapestry of perversity. The corrupt DEA agents are also excellent. Anthony Zerbe seems to thrive on playing silently menacing villains. I find it refreshing when he portrays a good-guy as he did in "The Parallax View" and "Papillion." When he plays against type the viewer realizes just what a gifted actor he is. However, here he is his usual disturbing self as the greedy DEA agent. His henchmen are likewise pleasingly perverse. Richard Masur, the milquetoastgood guy from the 1970s "chick" TV series "One Day at a Time" plays a quiet seemingly rational person capable of extremely brutal acts of violence. His subtle menace is perfect counterbalance to Ray Sharkey's gonzo psycho. It is ironic that Mr. Sharkey ended up dying in real life of a drug-use related illness. If he had only learned from this film, we may not be deprived of the talents of one of the great character actors of the 1970s and 80s. (Look quick for "Vice Squad" villain, Wings Hauser in the brief Vietnam prologue!)

I am a criminal defense attorney by profession. I recently had client tell me upon his decision to plead guilty that he did not want a trial for his crime. "I put my victim through enough pain already without making them relive if at a trial." I was moved by his comments. He had traveled a dark road, learned from that experience, grew from that experience and was penitent. So do Ray Hicks and Marge and John Converse undergo this metamorphosis. They may end up paying the consequences for their actions, but they grow past them. There are many in this film who do not grow past their shortsightedness. While the film is ultimately uplifting, it is a harrowing journey through hell and back.

Director Reisz has made few films, which is a tragedy because for the most part, his out put is both personal and very entertaining. One of my all-time favorites is his 1960 classic "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" with Albert Finney. While researching this movie, I found that many people stated that the film cut out a lot of the brutality of the book. I found this hard to believe because this is a very brutal, mean film. However, the brutality is not exploitive in nature. This is a serious movie told with unflinching realism. I admit that I have not read "Dog Soldiers" but I intend to. The script was co-written by Robert Stone, the book's author, though. Robert Stone reportedly hated the American title of the film (in Europe it retains the books title). I like the title as Creedence Clearwater Revival's apocalyptic song has always been a personal favorite.

"Who'll Stop the Rain" is one of the overlooked gems of the 1970s. It is not light viewing. Get in the right frame of mind, sit back, hold on and enjoy.

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