Friday October 3, 1997
Move over, Harry's Bar and the Bad Hemingway Contest. We think we have the winner of the first Terrible Tennessee Williams competition. Not that we're aware of such an event, but how else to explain John Patrick Kelley's brazenly ripe screenplay for "The Locusts"?
Conceived as a play when Kelly was a college student in Kansas, and further developed during his film studies at New York University, "The Locusts" is now a tortured movie melodrama, a tale combining sexual bullying and ambivalence, gulped bourbon, dark pasts, a sultry femme fatale, a rural nymph, a virile stranger, a repressed child and enough cigarettes to launch a brand.
This is a film that cries out for obvious symbols, and Kelly provides two doozies, one by way of the title insects, the other by way of bull scrotum. When was the last time you got turned on by farm analogies?
"The Locusts" parts from Williams' favored Southern locale, setting up in Kelley's native Kansas. But there's no skimping here on the sexual depravity and moral decadence that fueled many a Williams play, and "The Locusts' " main female character, a boozy, sexually insatiable cattle rancher's widow (Kate Capshaw), is a prairie blend of Blanche Dubois, Alexandra Del Lago and Maggie the Cat.
Capshaw's Delilah Potts (judges, remember to score the names, too) inherited her modest ranch from a husband who hanged himself after catching her in bed with a lover, and eight years later, she's still warming the sheets with whomever she cuts from her herd of ranch hands. Meanwhile, her frail and largely mute 21-year-old son Flyboy (Jeremy Davies), recently home from a mental hospital, is doing her housekeeping and trying to ignore the traffic to his mother's bedroom.
Into this happy domestic 1960s scene comes Clay Hewitt (Vince Vaughn), a quietly confident drifter, harboring secrets of his own. In short order, Hewitt straightens out the local tough guy (Daniel Meyer), takes over his frisky girlfriend Kitty (Ashley Judd) and becomes a ranch hand in residence at the Potts farm. Before the sweaty stranger can change T-shirts, Delilah's bourbon-soaked tongue is on the floor and the stage is set for some serious sexual tension.
The main relationship in the story, however, is that of Clay and Flyboy, whose liberation from Delilah becomes the intruder's obsession. The kid is severely emotionally disturbed, haunted by the circumstances of his father's death, petrified of his callously controlling mother and incapable of expressing himself to anyone other than Jim, his father's prize bull and the movie's symbol of endangered masculinity.
Why Clay adopts Flyboy as a mission seems to draw from murkier Williams territory, suggesting Clay's own sexual ambivalence. This is a big brother seduction that, combined with Clay's ability to withhold sex from such eager beauties as Kitty and Delilah, makes you wonder. It sure does.
Vaughn, who caught Hollywood's attention in the sneak hit "Swingers," and Davies, the self-abusing hero of "Spanking the Monkey," bring a sincerity to each of their roles that gives "The Locusts" its one compelling dramatic thread. Davies, playing the film's most tragic figure, does such a brilliant physical mime of a frightened boy in a slumping adult body that it's almost impossible to spot the acting that went into it.
Capshaw has an even tougher task, making human a character of such off-putting self-pity and hostility, and through all the smoldering poses in her performance, for all the anguished revelations she delivers about Delilah's past, she doesn't overcome the psychological emptiness of the part.
The talented Judd has one of the most thankless roles of her fresh career. As Kitty, she isn't asked to do much more than appear sexy and flash Kodak smiles. She does both with ease, but there's too much going on behind this actress' eyes to waste in throwaway roles.
Note to filmmakers who cannot shoot a scene without a cigarette in it: Have someone cough once in a while, just so we know the smokes are real.
The Locusts, 1997. R for sexuality. Orion Pictures presents a Brad Krevoy & Steve Stabler production, distributed by MGM Distribution Co. Director John Patrick Kelley. Producers Brad Krevoy, Steve Stabler, Bradley Thomas. Screenplay by John Patrick Kelley. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Editors Kathryn Himoff, Erica Flaum. Costumes Gail McMullen. Music Carter Burwell. Production designer Sherman Williams. Art director Roy Metcalf. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Kate Capshaw as Mrs. Potts. Jeremy Davies as Flyboy. Vince Vaughn as Clay. Ashley Judd as Kitty. Paul Rudd as Earl.