Harvey Keitel, that urban icon, might not be the first actor who comes to mind to play a dirt-poor small-town Southerner. So we can only be grateful that Susanna Styron thought of him for her wise and gentle film based on her father William Styron's short story "Shadrach."
The moment Keitel opens his mouth, we know that he's just right as Vernon Dabney, reduced to supporting his wife and seven children as a moonshiner in the Virginia tidelands in the depths of the Depression. Speaking with an authentic-sounding Southern accent, Keitel proceeds to give one of the finest, most distinctive performances of his career. "Shadrach" represents a stretch in a different direction for Keitel, much as "The Piano" did.
The Dabneys are one of those families who are always found living on the edge of town in a ramshackle house surrounded by derelict cars. Dabney's lovely, slightly disheveled wife, Trixie (Andie MacDowell, no less impressive than Keitel, to whom she bemusedly underplays), is a classic earth mother, calm and caring, the perfect antidote to her frustrated, volatile husband, who sees FDR and his New Deal as a threat rather than a deliverance. Her house is a mess, she's given up on her four sons' personal hygiene, but she has three pretty, immaculate daughters, one of whom, Ebonia (Monica Bugajeski), charms 10-year-old Paul Whitehurst (Scott Terra).
The shabby, profane, unrespectable Dabneys are just the sort of people who would fascinate a boy from a very proper middle-class, God-fearing family, and Paul is thrilled when his parents (Darrell Larson, Deborah Hedwall) reluctantly agree to let him stay with them while they're off to Baltimore for three days. That brief period of time, however, is enough to transform Paul's life. Martin Sheen is heard on the soundtrack as the adult Paul--well-played by Terra--thus providing the perspective and insights of maturity.
That's because a very old, very exhausted black man, Shadrach (John Franklin Sawyer, an amazing 83-year-old retired postal worker), turns up in the Dabneys' yard. Gradually they--and we--realize that Shadrach, who says he's 99 years old, was a slave on Vernon's great-grandfather's tobacco plantation. When Shadrach was a young man, Vernon's ancestor sold him and some other slaves to a planter in Alabama, where Shadrach became a sharecropper after the Civil War. Now that he's outlived three wives and anywhere from 12 to 15 children, he has somehow managed to travel 600 miles to come home to die, to be buried on the Dabney plantation.
Talk about the rock tossed into the still pond. The only evidence that Vernon was descended from plantation aristocracy is a picture of a white-columned mansion, hanging askew on his living room wall. The Yankees burned it, and the land on which it stood is where Vernon maintains his moonshine operations. Through Vernon and his resentment at having to deal with Shadrach, we see not the blind redneck racism that we might have expected but the sheer burden, in its myriad aspects, that the institution of slavery has placed on successive generations of whites and blacks alike.
Keitel expresses what a curse the legacy of slavery has been to men like Vernon in one of the transcendent moments of his career, letting Vernon's weariness and despair shine through the exasperated words of bigotry. But Vernon is in fact a decent man, nudged with a good-natured but subtly resolute firmness by Trixie to do the right thing by Shadrach, only to encounter unexpected obstacles that play out with both poignancies and humor.
This flawless, deeply felt yet buoyant and graceful film marks Styron's feature directorial debut, after a varied career as a documentarian, writer and as an assistant to Ken Russell on "Altered States" and Luis Bun~uel on "That Obscure Object of Desire."
That she herself has a Southern heritage, adapting (with Bridget Terry) her own celebrated father's story, surely gives the period-perfect "Shadrach" its special resonance.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for language and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: Suitable for all ages.
Harvey Keitel: Vernon Dabney
Andie MacDowell: Trixie Dabney
Scott Terra: Paul Whitehurst
John Franklin Sawyer: Shadrach Dabney
A Columbia release of a Millennium Films presentation in association with Nu Image. Director Susanna Styron. Producer Bridget Terry. Screenplay by Styron and Terry; based on the short story by William Styron. Cinematographer Hiro Narita. Editor Colleen Sharp. Costumes Dona Granata. Music Van Dyke Parks. Production designer Burton Rencher. Set decorator Valerie Fann. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
* Exclusively at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City Shopping Center, (310) 553-8900, and Mann Criterion, 1310 3rd. St. Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 395-3030.