DVD Review Of The Trip To Bountiful
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/9/10
Greatness in one medium does not assure greatness in another. One need only look at the film The Trip To Bountiful to realize this. Yes, there are great elements in the film- the acting, the writing (Horton Foote’s screenplay is outstanding in the way it suggests surfaces barely lifted up, as it did in films like Tender Mercies and To Kill A Mockingbird), and the direction. But, there is no great cinematography and virtually nothing that indelibly stamps this as a visual feast. And, despite its reliance on the script, it never pushes the envelope to the extreme that Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre did.
Geraldine Page plays Mrs. Watts, an old lady living in Truman Era Houston, Texas, who longs to return to her old Gulf Coast town of Bountiful. Her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn), and son Ludie (John Heard)- both in their late 30s to early 40s, have taken her in for the last fifteen years, and the relationship between all parties is strained, even though nothing need be explained. Mother Watts (as Jessie Mae calls her- we never find out her first name in the film, only in the end credits) is a sweet but passive-aggressively pushy old lady, whereas Jessie Mae is just pushy, and occasionally bitchy. Ludie is a good-natured schlub, with a new job, after a couple of years of unspecified illness (although one suspects he had a nervous collapse). He obviously loves both women and puts then ahead of himself. Despite her self-centeredness, Jessie Mae clearly cares for the old woman, and frets that she will do things to hurt herself. Yet, Mother Watts resents this, and always longs to return to her hometown of Bountiful, to call on a childhood friend. But, the town is a ghost town, and even when she finally sneaks away, to catch a bus to the nearest town (with her Social Security check- a prize desired by Jessie Mae), she is unwilling to accept that the past is irrecoverable.
At the bus station she meets up with a young blond woman (Rebecca DeMornay). She is an Army wife whose husband is overseas. They gab and exchange tales. Herein is where Mother Watts discloses she was forced to marry Ludie’s father, not the man she really loved. The bus ends up at another bus station, in the town of Harrison, close to Bountiful. But, she has left her purse on the bus, and must wait for its return, and all these plans are made after she has found out her childhood friend died sometime ago, right upon her tractor, and was just buried a day earlier. The young woman and Mrs. Watts part ways, and the local sheriff (Richard Bradford) tells the bus station clerk (Kevin Cooney) to keep Mrs. Watts until her son comes for her. The sheriff finally consents to drive the old lady out to the ghost town, after getting a local doctor’s ok, and once there, the two have a very naturalistic time talking. It’s realspeak, not moviespeak. Things that conjure up childhood are spoken about elliptically, so that the sheriff and old lady are speaking the same language, and one which the audience can understand, despite, on a surface level, not appearing to really saying much at all.
Then, Ludie and Jessie Mae arrive, and they, too, naturalistically converse. When mother and son speak we get more explicitly that the film really isn’t just about an old woman’s desire to go home again, but about a man who has failed at everything he’s tried in life, and deferred his aspirations for the betterment of the two women in his life. We see that Ludie cannot bear the past because few can deal with the fact that their glory days were only in youth. We also see the tender side of Jessie Mae when she declaims four rules that Mother Watts needs to live by. And, we realize that they are not Draconian, and only have Mother Watts’ interest at heart. The old lady realizes this too, and shocks he daughter-in-law with a genuinely heartfelt kiss on the cheek. As they head back to Ludie’s borrowed car (from a work colleague) the trio almost lapse into old patterns, until Ludie, for the first time in the film, shows some backbone. Mother Watts looks off into the sky, and while this is not a happy ending, in the traditional sense, it is in the real world sense, and that’s enough to buoy the viewer.
The 108 minute long film is seen in a1.85:1 aspect ratio, and was released on DVD by MGM Pictures. It has no audio commentary, but really does not need one, for the narrative structure is simple, even if the characters are not. The lack of commentary is more than made up for by a well wrought and informative making of featurette with incisive comments by all the surviving actors (Page died a year or so after the film’s making), as well as Foote and director Peter Masterson. There is also the original theatrical trailer available.
Many critics have seen the film solely as the coming to terms with age by Mother Watts, or the desire to rekindle youth. But, the film is obviously more, and is about the dynamics of a family and how competing desires find their niches, for better or worse, in amongst each other. Sometimes there is stress (as when Mother Watts and Jessie Mae bicker over a recipe) and sometimes not (the film’s ending with the trio). There is also much in the film that is unspoken, just as in real relationships- such as the childlessness of the Watts marriage, and the likely sexual lack of intimacy this causes between Ludie and Jessie Mae, and how this all may have led to the ‘illness’ we see Ludie recovering from at film’s start. The fact that Ludie has to continually steel himself up to ask for a raise, and his admission of his ‘trying hard’ in life, when he and his mother talk at the old homestead, reveal how well Foote is at covering large ground in short bounds. He also has a digressive style which forefronts smaller problems (Mother Watts’ dilemma) to slyly reveal larger problems (Ludie’s mental and sexual health). In one of the most informative insights on the featurette- and in fact on any DVD supplement or commentary I’ve ever experienced, Foote makes a remarkable claim, that will surprise all but the best writers out there, and that is that the tale, as told, is not the tale that Foote set out to make. He had an idea about a woman who was forced to marry a man she did not love and abandon her true love. But, this premise was banal, in his several attempts at it, so he decided to take that scenario, and look at it from a perspective at the end of the woman’s life- to show the butterfly effect, in effect, in its final flaps. Thus, the initial spur for the work of art is reduced to a few lines Mother Watts tells the young woman on the bus. The point is that great artists know this process of art creation to be true, but never before has an artist so explicitly stated it, and in doing so, admitted his failure with the material initially. This revelation alone makes the DVD a bargain.
The acting is first rate, but, despite her Oscar, Page was better in
Woody Allen’s Interiors, in a much more demanding and unsympathetic
role. The real stars here are Glynn and Heard, and it’s a tossup as to which
actor is better, for neither is as accessible as the Page role. Glynn’s role
is as a seeming bitch, but we never really believe that, as in several moments
throughout the film we see she really does care for her mother. Heard’s
character never has problems showing he cares, but he is a classic hen-pecked
type. Since abrasiveness and seeming cowardice are not valued traits, it’s no
wonder both Foote and the audience sympathize more with Mother Watts, and this
is why she is the de facto lead, even if her tale is the least interesting, and
most predictable, of the three- especially when we learn that two of Ludie’s
siblings died in that town, in childhood. The character played by DeMornay is,
by contrast, merely a plot device to get inside Mother Watts. With that done,
her exit from the film is anticlimactic.
The film got mixed reviews on its release, but even those who praised it did so for the wrong reasons, lumping it in with lesser nostalgic schlock like The Color Purple and the later Driving Miss Daisy. There was also the critical cribbing regarding Mother Watts’ first name, as well as some claims that the film has flashbacks, due to the opening credits scene where we see a young Mother Watts and child Ludie running through a field of flowers. But, since this is the opening shot, and is never repeated, it cannot be a flashback. The film could be considered a flashforward, but given the bulk of time spent in the film’s present, this is ludicrous. It does, however, amply show the problems many critics have in dealing with art that does not conform to their preconceptions, nor the promotional material they are given. The film’s main themes song, Softly And Tenderly, sung by Cynthia Clawson, is memorable, but scoring is not a strength of this film.
The Trip To Bountiful has many great points and moments, but it is not a great film, for the translation between media is a difficult thing to pull off. But, the film shows the failure of much contemporary writing, with an over-reliance on diurnal description and rote explanation, whereas true characterization comes from observation- the viewer being to observe what and what not the character does, and how that has an effect on the character, even if the whole observational process is discreetly exhibited. This film is a great example of characterization at its finest, and even though it does not achieve overall greatness in this medium, it small failures point out the way that the truly great works of the filmic medium do achieve it. Thus, it recapitulates much of the learning process that the tercet of main characters undergoes. Not bad for a failure, eh?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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