Francis Ford Coppola (writer-director), The Rain People
One sunny, undistinguished morning, at the crack of dawn, Long Island housewife Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight) throws a suitcase in the family car, leaves her husband a fresh pot of coffee, and drives west. She has no destination, no goal, and no map. She only knows she feels a profound restlessness, compounded by the new life she’s discovered growing in her belly. So she pursues a classic American road odyssey, surrounded by awkward Nixon-era alienation.
Since its release in 1969, Coppola’s third big-studio film, and his last before his commercial breakout with The Godfather, remains deeply influential with screenwriters and fellow filmmakers, but largely unseen by general audiences. It wasn’t released on DVD until 2009, and then only in on-demand format. But Coppola insists it remains among his top five favorites of his own films, probably reflecting the deeply personal story, which he wrote specifically for the three lead stars.
Meandering west, Natalie picks up a hitchhiker, Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon (James Caan). A former college football star, Killer simply wants to reconnect with his college sweetheart. Natalie and Killer bond over his simple reminiscences while driving. But upon reaching his sweetheart’s family mansion, Natalie discovers why this former gridiron bonecrusher seems so gentle and uncombative now: a massive head injury on the field left him permanently childlike. His former college now lets him rake leaves.
This movie lacks what you’d call a conventional plot. Its episodic structure, organized around Natalie’s difficulty accepting polite Levittown domesticity, matches the rootless feel of America back then. The characters suffer massive spiritual chasms, left vacant by the retreat of postwar courtesy, and they all want something, though none can identify what. Until they find their respective quest objects, the characters embrace meaningless encounters, desperately avoiding opening up to one another, lest they see themselves.
The simplicity Natalie found endearing in Killer in small doses quickly becomes overwhelming. She finds his need for emotional validation burdensome, much like the baby she hasn’t quite accepted in herself, and quickly unloads him on an unsuspecting businessman. But, speeding away from the deeply awkward departure, she gets stopped by a handsome motorcycle cop, Gordon (Robert Duvall). When Gordon’s candid advances turn romantic, giddy Natalie accepts, not realizing she’s stepping into a beat trap.
|Shirley Knight (left) and James Caan in The Rain People|
Disgusted with Hollywood’s old-boy network, which meant most actors on Finian’s Rainbow were over fifty, Coppola took the unusual step of producing this movie with minimal time spent in Hollywood. The opening scenes, set on Long Island, were actually shot in Long Island. The production included lengthy sojourns in places like Weston, West Virginia, and Ogallala, Nebraska, unglamorous places that found themselves blindsided by Coppola. Nebraska hadn’t seen any feature film-making in over thirty years.
This unconventional film-making approach situates The Rain People securely in the “New Hollywood” tradition, an auteur-driven movement that, far from considering directors as hired staff, promoted them as more important than the moribund studio system. Critics generally regard New Hollywood as beginning in 1967, with Bonnie and Clyde, and achieving its commercial apotheosis in 1977 with Star Wars. (George Lucas’ first screen credit was on The Rain People, as “production associate”—basically Coppola’s personal factotum.)
New Hollywood films shared many traits: embrace of moral ambiguity, disdain for out-and-out heroes, lack of three-act structure, and often equivocal resolutions. Even Star Wars, the most clearly heroic and structured New Hollywood film, relied on antiheroes and frequently appeared to distrust Luke Skywalker’s “Golden Boy” image. The Rain People ends with the story still in progress, the actions not clearly resolved, though Natalie’s soliloquy, dragging a dying Killer, prove Coppola’s theme has been completed.
This isn’t an easy movie to watch. Coppola keeps even the most brutal confrontations pitched at a remarkably low-key level, forcing audiences to pay unusually close attention. He avoids clear narrative signposts, so audiences aren’t sure where, in the story, we stand. Viewers accustomed to passively consuming blockbusters from Hollywood dream factories will find this movie strange and bleak. But that’s its appeal. In an age where filmmakers lead audiences around, this movie trusts us.