Shy People

December 7, 2012

shypeopleWhen I was driving around in the bayou country of southern Louisiana last year, I happened to tune into a radio talk show discussing the subject of movies filmed in the state.

The commentators spoke with some weariness and bemusement about the way that movies set in rural Louisiana always portray the locals as a bunch of inbred crazies, performing weird rituals in the swamps and attacking stray outsiders (as in Southern Comfort, for instance).

I don’t imagine these commentators will be too thrilled with Shy People, which is another film about some outsiders finding a strange new universe in the bayou.

But, to be fair to filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train), Shy People goes to some lengths to establish a sympathy for the backwoods people, even if they ultimately come off as flaky.

It’s a culture-clash movie, about a New York writer, Diana (Jill Clayburgh), who takes her teenage daughter (Martha Plimpton) to Louisiana in search of a story. She’s got relatives there, but she’s never met them.

The bayou family is now ruled by her distant cousin, Ruth (Barbara Hershey, winner of the best actress prize at the ’97 Cannes Film Festival for this performance), who is raising three sons in a dilapidated house, far away from the reach of civilization.

One son is a trapper (Don Swayze), one is retarded, and the other is locked in the tool shed for an unnamed offense. Her older boy (Merritt Butrick) has moved into town, where he runs the Pussycat Lounge; he’s not mentioned in the family anymore.

Konchalovsky is interested in contrasting these two different mothers, and in showing the changes they bring on each other.

Diana is all big-city pose, her gold bracelets clanking as she confronts a crisis with, “I’m from Cosmopolitan magazine! Don’t you know what that means?”

Ruth remains bound to the swamp, insisting with mysterious belief that her late, larger-than-life husband is still alive out there, somewhere.

The climax of this clash of lifestyles comes when the two women leave the house to go into town, and the daughter teases the boys into a lather. She also gives them a sniff of cocaine, and soon they’re setting free the goats and turning loose the chickens, and generally behaving like characters in some cautionary reefer madness movie.

As Konchalovsky tells the story, he ladles on a heavy dose of social criticism. For all their oddities, he sides with the natural life of the country people, as opposed to the neuroses of the city folk.

He’ll stop the show to focus on a can of Bud plunking into the bayou from the highway above, in slow motion yet, and he’s eager to show the decadence of civilization.

A great deal of this becomes simple-minded to the point of dopiness. But if Konchalovsky is bald about his ideas, you can’t deny this director’s powerful visual sense.

Konchalovsky finds some definitively spooky sights in that swampy backwater; the gray-green mists seem to hide a bounty of secrets. This is the forest primeval, indeed.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Before we go elevating Andrei Konchalovsky (the brother of Nikita Mikhalkov) to the Powerful Visual Sense club, let us note that Shy People was photographed by Chris Menges, who knew something about all that. Konchalovsky went to school with Tarkovsky. The slo-mo on the beer can sort of sums up the director’s approach.