Stephen King is a writer with an eye for the grotesque, never at a loss for a strange way to make somebody die. Scott Hicks, director of "Shine" and "Snow Falling on Cedars," is a filmmaker of noticeable, at times overwhelming, gentility. They do not seem made for each other, but "Hearts in Atlantis" shows they can be.
Assisted by a well-crafted script by the veteran William Goldman and a masterful performance by Anthony Hopkins, Hicks has turned two King short stories into a somber meditation on the dreams and frustrations of childhood and the ways the adult world makes its darker qualities known. Though the film is inevitably too pat at times, too eager to underline its message, it has in Hopkins an actor who can obliterate most objections.
The two stories from King's "Hearts in Atlantis" collection, "Low Men in Yellow Coats" and "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," find the author in a mood more nostalgic than bloodthirsty. Still, Goldman has shrewdly tightened and streamlined the plot, added at least one memorable speech and to an extent normalized the narrative's inevitable supernatural elements. After the briefest of prologues showing an adult Bobby Garfield (David Morse) going home for the funeral of one of his closest childhood friends, "Atlantis" shifts backward to focus on what happened to an 11-year-old Bobby (an engaging Anton Yelchin) in 1960.
Bobby has two tight friends, Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar), youngsters with whom he shares a few too many Norman Rockwell moments. But otherwise, his life is rather empty. Bobby's father died when he was 5, and his acerbic, distant working mother, Liz (Hope Davis, on target as always), has little time or money to spend on him, though she never loses an opportunity to blame all their problems on her departed ex.
Yet though she never seems to have money for Bobby (the flashback opens with him getting an adult library card for his birthday, not the Schwinn bicycle he's dreamed of), Liz manages to find the wherewithal for the smart clothes she says she needs for work. What Bobby needs is adult interaction as well as a substitute for his desperately missed father, which is where the enigmatic Ted Brautigan (Hopkins) enters the picture.
A nondescript, middle-aged man who arrives with his possessions in shopping bags (which does not make the best impression on Liz), Ted has rented the upstairs apartment in Bobby's house. Yet as ordinary as Ted seems, there is something strange about him, something indefinite that lurks just beyond our comprehension.
Taking the inevitable liking to the boy (who, in truth, is remarkably likable), Ted hires him for a pair of jobs. The first and most straightforward, given that the older man's eyes are failing, is to read the newspaper aloud. The second demands that Bobby keep his own eyes open for "low men" in the neighborhood, sinister strangers driving big cars. Does Ted have something they want, the boy asks. Yes, the man says, "let's leave it at that."
Though there are involving incidents with Bobby's friends and his mother, the interaction between this surrogate father and son is "Hearts in Atlantis" at its most compelling. As a man who is ordinary yet something more, a man with powers that only gradually become clear, Hopkins uses his exceptional skill to make it seem like he's doing nothing at all.
His is a quiet but intense presence, and never more so than in the bravura monologue in which Ted describes for Bobby what it was like to see the pro football comeback of legendary running back Bronko Nagurski, a set piece that just about dares us to be indifferent.
As the willing protege, young Yelchin, lively without being cloying, has the naturalness that makes holding one's own against a performer like Hopkins look easier than it is.
Everything about "Atlantis" is not as satisfying as these two, and the film, with such sentiments as "when you're a kid a day can last forever," does have a tendency to think what it's saying is more profound than it is. But Hicks, whose style did not enhance "Snow Falling on Cedars," proves to be a good match for this material.
Though it's almost unfashionable to be this way, Hicks is the most careful of directors, and in "Hearts in Atlantis" he's able to keep things in a satisfying balance. When the film mixes terror and the everyday, Hicks ensures that it's unnerving in a convincing but non-exploitative manner. And his natural gravity, though it can't eliminate all hokeyness and mush, keeps those qualities from getting out of hand. In this, too, Hopkins' work is essential: By grounding the proceedings in the unwavering reality of his performance, he carries out the greatest service.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence and thematic scenes. Times guidelines: children in peril; a sexually motivated, brutal assault.
'Hearts in Atlantis'
Anthony Hopkins: Ted Brautigan
Anton Yelchin: Bobby Garfield
Hope Davis: Liz Garfield
Mika Boorem: Carol Gerber
David Morse: Adult Bobby Garfield
In association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment, a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation, released by Warner Bros. Director Scott Hicks. Producer Kerry Heysen. Executive producers Bruce Berman, Michael Flynn. Screenplay William Goldman, based on the Book by Steven King. Cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski. Editor Pip Karmel. Costumes Julie Weiss. Music Mychael Danna. Production design Barbara C. Ling. Art director Mark Worthington. Set decorator Heather Jenkins. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release.