Fracnis Ford Coppola has to be one of the ballsiest directors to ever dominate the main stream. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the making of several of his movies seemed like career suicide, and more than once had him on the brink of financial ruin. Then all the dust would settle and something amazing like The Conversation or Apocalypse Now would be the result. Or maybe something not so great would appear, like The Cotton Club or One From the Heart. But even when they weren’t so great, there was always an attempt at something big, something different, something new. With all that’s come since then, it’s amazing to see where it all started, with a small, character based road movie, The Rain People.
Shirley Knight is Natalie, a suburban housewife who finds out she’s pregnant, freaks out and hits the road, leaving her husband. Along the way, she picks up a hitchhiker played by James Caan, Jimmy, who goes by his college football nickname, Killer. Killer suffered a head injury on the field and is now never going to be eligible for Mensa membership.
At first strangely sexual, their relationship becomes more like a mother and son as Natalie realises the extent of Killer’s brain damage and she becomes increasingly protective. Later, Robert Duvall appears as a motorcycle cop and bizarre possible love interest, but it’s obvious from the opening minutes that The Rain People isn’t interested in giving Natalie a happily ever after.
Coppola rarely does things small. His movies are big, grand, bombastic and rich with everything… Characters, story, music, sets, production design. So it really is amazing to see it start on such a small scale. And I don’t just mean small in budget and small on experience from its director. I mean small in story, small in focus, small in execution. Other characters pop up here and there, but the majority is just Natalie and Killer. Even Duvall, who gets third billing as the cop Roger, only shows up for a handful of scenes in the second half.
The Rain People is a road movie, but it’s not all highways that vanish over the horizon and endless scenic vistas. Instead, it’s all about the claustrophobic inside of Natalie’s station wagon, the cheap motels on the side of the road and the small towns that road movies usually drive right past.
The story goes that while Coppola, along with a young production associate named George Lucas, were travelling across the top of the country from west to east making this movie, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonder were a little more south, headed east to west, making Easy Rider. Even as someone who’s always found Easy Rider kind of over rated, indulgent and boring, it’s great to think that these future legends were all just getting started, doing things their way and getting ready to dominate the next decade in Hollywood.
The Rain People
Directed By – Francis Ford Coppola
Written By – Francis Ford Coppola