MOVIE REVIEWS : Dark Trip Through the American Dream

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Bright Angel" (AMC Century 14, GCC Beverly Connection) is a film about turning points, moments that scar and change you forever. It's a coming-of-age story of unusual bleakness and empathy, and it has real verbal style. The characters speak an odd, poetic, homiletic lingo and their words tend to resonate in the vast, empty landscapes around them: the Montana plains slashed by highways that stretch endlessly toward far horizons and occasional towns.

Screenwriter Richard Ford, who adapted the movie from two short stories in his 1987 collection "Rock Springs," is something of a literary Populist and he's set his story among common people in these towns: characters that, for all their surface strength or bravado, operate under a terrifying vulnerability.

Ford's protagonist, George (Dermot Mulroney), sees his family split apart when his father (Sam Shepard) catches his mother with a lover. He fights with his best friend, Claude (Benjamin Bratt), over a runaway, Lucy (Lili Taylor), who is passing through on her way from Canada to the oil fields. Throwing in with Lucy, he winds up trapped in an outlaw world, a dangerous subculture from which there may be no exit.

Ford and director Michael Fields (best known for his "American Playhouse" adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's "Noon Wine") conduct an inverse journey through the hallowed archetypes of the American Dream. Hunting, friendship, sexual initiation, life on the road, good vs. evil, the Big Fight, and the Big Break: they're all there, but somehow, they've gone dark, sad, off-key.

These days, movies are often smashingly filmed--photographed, edited and dressed to the nines--but few of them, by contrast, are really written . That's what sets "Bright Angel" apart, even though, in adapting his stories ("Great Falls" and "Children"), Ford comes up with something of a patchwork. Both tales, originally set in 1961, only carry through the first part of the film. The movie, by contrast, is post-Vietnam--George's car is a battered '72 Impala--and the latter section, far more melodramatic, with juicy psychopathic star turns for heavies Bill Pullman and Burt Young, actually feels more like a movie script.

Yet, Ford's writing survives the spottier structure. And, though director Fields doesn't have a consistent visual style--the visual style, as much as anything else, that makes a masterpiece out of a movie like "Thelma & Louise"--he maintains sympathy with the material, the milieu, the characters. Fields knows the values of these actors--Shepard's haggard romanticism, Lili Taylor's spunky, defiant sluttishness, Sheila McCarthy's homespun flakiness, Burt Young's murderously oozy-woozy casualness--and he lets them spin it out.

If "Bright Angel" (rated R for language, violence and sensuality) isn't completely successful, it still catches a mood, a place. And you can almost sense how grateful these actors are. They don't have to knock themselves out, torturing up an imaginary subtext to justify banal lines. They can flow with the script and their instincts: like George, let the road carry them where it will.

'Bright Angel'

Dermot Mulroney: George

Lili Taylor: Lucy

Sam Shepard: Jack

A Hemdale Film Corp. presentation of a Northwood/Bright Angel production. Director Michael Fields. Producer Paige Simpson, Robert MacLean. Screenplay Richard Ford. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language, sensuality, violence).

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