In the first scene of Kansas, two strangers on a train meet. They’re not riding first class, either; both young men are hopping a freight as it rattles through the Midwest. As in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, one guy is esentially decent, the other is a dangerous psychopath who leads them both into crime.
But any similarities to Strangers on a Train end there. Kansas is a peculiar commodity, a movie that tries to go in a few different directions at once, and doesn’t arrive anywhere.
The two drifters are played by Matt Dillon, as the hard-luck crazy, and Andrew McCarthy, as the average Joe drawn into a violent scheme. Dillon invites McCarthy to stop by his little Kansas hometown, where the two casually knock off a small bank.
During the escape, they split up, and, somehow, McCarthy ends up with the money. Then, somehow, he saves the life of the governor’s daughter, who happens to be in town that day. Within the same hour, he’s a hero and a villain. He doesn’t stick around to see what happens next.
While Dillon is roaming the countryside wondering where the money went, McCarthy stops off at a local farm where he romances a snotty farmer’s daughter (Leslie Hope). At this point, everything in Spencer Eastman’s screenplay falls apart. The first couple of reels are interesting because you can’t really predict where the movie is going, and there’s the natural suspense of criminals on the lam. But all of that dissipates with the lame love interest.
At times, Australian director David Stevens (A Town Like Alice) shows signs of wanting to tap into a quality of American restlessness, and his landscapes are pretty. But the story itself is unworkable.
Dillon is good, shifty and unpredictable. “I get high by doing the unthinkable,” he says proudly, and be seems as petulantly hurt by McCarthy’s personal betrayal of their friendship as he does by the misplacement of the money. Changing from a teen hunk into an actor must be a difficult thing, but Dillon bas done it.
McCarthy isn’t as lucky. He gives the same soulful-eyed performance he’s given in his last few movies, and it’s getting a little tired. But his character is nonexistent. We never know what this guy is thinking, or why he’s in the state he’s in, and I don’t mean Kansas.
First published in the Herald, September 1988
Screenwriter Spencer Eastman died before this movie came out, of lung cancer (he wrote Hide in Plain Sight, the only movie directed by James Caan). Director Stevens, who had worked a lot in Australian TV, never directed again, although he went back to writing, including the play and movie The Sum of Us. He’d been Oscar-nominated for writing Breaker Morant. Leslie Hope went on to better things; she’s done a huge amount of acting for TV (Kiefer Sutherland’s wife in 24) and also directing and producing. Her first movies were directed by Paul Almond and John Cassavetes, so she could hardly help but turn out interesting. Kyra Sedgwick is in Kansas, too, as “Prostitute Drifter,” according to IMDb.