Page 11


and scar his brother-in-law Emmett? The past is a foreign country, and Lloyd, Sam, Canadian director Norman Jewison and the viewer approach it unsure of the accent. Sam has grown up with dotty Uncle Emmett in a Hopewell house whose interior seems designed by Hurricane Hugo. Her mother, who wants nothing to do with the dead, lives with a new husband and baby in Lexington. “I was married to him for a month before he left,” explains Irene \(Joan I never saw him again. Life goes on.” She intends to go on to study at the University of Kentucky, and she wishes her daughter would join her. Shortly after graduating from Hopewell High, Sam comes across a cache of family memorabilia that we are supposed to believe could have remained untouched at Emmett’s for all of two decades. Included are letters that father sent mother from Vietnam. Sam begins to read them and to insist on knowing more about the life and death of the callow young man who sired her before flying off to Southeast Asia. “You weren’t there, so you can’t understand it,” insists Tom \(John hand, the war unmanned. Is the choice only impotence or ignorance? In an effort to solve the riddle of her birth, Sam hangs out with the middleaged men who have never been the same since serving “in country.” Maimed in spirit if not body, they are as weary as a clich. Emmett, who may be suffering from Agent Orange and terminal blues, transcends the stereotype in a fine performance by Bruce Willis. Haunted by his demons, Emmett runs out into a storm and climbs a tree. Lear-like in his desperate challenge to the universe, he shrieks to the elements: “Show me your face!” Based on Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1985 novel, In Country is an attempt to face up to the continuing burden of a remote adventure that cost 55,000 American lives, not to mention and the film never does the Asian ones. It culminates in an image of reconciliation, a sentimental journey by three generations Sam, Emmett and Veterans Memorial in Washington. The mellow music and the verdant landscape into which the trio walks away signal to the viewer that peace has come at last to the troubled hearts of Hopewell. If so, it is a peace that passes understanding and I wish that Jewison had bothered to pass it back. Skillful flashbacks throughout the film gradually reveal the circumstances of Dwayne Hughes’s death, but that is not what we most need to know. In Country, like an increasing number of other works, seeks to “come to terms with” the Vietnam War, but the terms to which they come are usurious: consensus at the expense of any sense of history or politics. In Country is much less concerned with the era and system that forced hundreds of thousands of young men to squander the best years of their lives in another country than it is in evoking a country of troubled but honest yeomen and calling it Kentucky. “Hopewell A great place to live and work,” reads the inscription on Sam’s T shirt, and except for a brief image of Sam jogging past a black church, Hopewell is the kind of homogeneous middle America whose spice rack holds only salt of the earth. The kind of men who might have chosen prison or Jewison’s native Toronto over combat in a distant country are nowhere to be seen. Two temperamental vets get into a scuffle over whether the politicians and the press lost the war for us, but moments later they are embracing, as if disputes over moral responsibility are asinine obstacles to sharing a beer. Amnesia is offered as the antidote to residual angst. “America is never going to forget you,” declares an unseen voice in the movie’s opening frames to troops assembled on the tarmac, awaiting transport to Vietnam. The irony is bitter, though mere remembrance of a name inscribed on a slab is a feeble consolation for extinction. In Country creates the illusion of national catharsis, when all it provides is a local enema. The film is an engaging character study, but, if you are expecting something more, forget it. WHEN WE first glimpse Johnny “Handsome” Sedley, he is hardly more handsome than John Merrick, the Elephant Man. A congenital deformity has left him with a face that not even a mother could love, and Johnny’s mother, a prostitute who died when he was 13, did not. He was abandoned to make his own way by hook or by crook. At the outset of Johnny Handsome, he is attempting the latter, in a spectacularly violent heist of a rare coin shop in New Orleans. Like his cohorts, Johnny wears a mask, but it improves his appearance. Two of his partners murder a third, Johnny’s only friend, Mikey, and make off with the loot. Johnny is left to face another term at the Angola Prison Farm, for his second felony offense. Dr. Resher, a saintly surgeon played by Forrest Whitaker, wants to test a theory that the mask makes the man and that corrective surgery reduces recidivism. Offering to reconstruct Johnny’s mangled mug, he promises: “I will give you a new name, I will give you a new face, a new identity and a chance at a new life.” When loathsome Johnny comes out from under Resher’s bandages, he looks like Mickey Rourke. He takes a job in a nearby shipyard after assuming the name John Mitchell. If you assume that director Walter Hill knows the name of a convicted attorney general, it is a bad omen for the possibility of character reform. We are also asked to assume that Johnny’s deformity, so severe he could not even speak clearly, was confined to his face and that, after a lifetime of being scorned as a freak, he could emerge from surgery without any immediate social or sexual dysfunctions. Johnny falls in love with angelic Donna think that perhaps Dr. Resher was right, that we can achieve better living through chemistry and through the natural benevolence of the species. When Johnny reports back to Resher on the mutual support he and Donna provide, the kindly doctor replies: “That’s what makes us a society people helping each other.” But Johnny is haunted by a darker angel, a cynical police detective named Drones faith in rehabilitation. “I know who you are, and I know what you are,” he tells Johnny, and what he thinks he knows is that a leopard might change its spots, but it will never be a lamb. Lt. Drones is convinced that Johnny’s new identity is only skin deep, that, though no longer as ugly as sin, he will soon revert to the old Johnny Handsome, whose actions were as sinful as his face was ugly. Specifically, he expects Johnny to take violent revenge against Sunny the slimy pair who crossed him in the coin shop caper. Despite well-proportioned bodies, they are an incarnation of malevolence. Johnny Handsome has the feel of those 1930s melodramas in which ex-cons are forever trying to go straight. It is a cosmic wrestling match, a struggle between good and bad angels for the soul of a man who never had much of a chance. A fable on the fallacy of social engineering, it gives Lt. Drones the final word. Standing over Johnny’s mutilated corpse, as ugly in death as it had been for most of his life, he is vindicated in his insistence on thinking, the worst of us all: “That damned doctor didn’t understand this party, did he?” he gloats. Like some gumshoe Milton Friedman, serenely confident that socialism with a human face is shoddy plastic surgery, that utopian efforts are doomed to failure because they overrate human nature, Drones watches with Olympian glee as Resher’s project fails. Johnny Handsome is a morality play in which morality loses. It is also another redaction of Beauty and the Beast, in which the love of a good woman is almost enough to redeem a monstrous man. Recognizing that he is unworthy of her faith, Johnny rejects Donna, tries to shelter her from disappointment by banishing her from his life. But, in the movie’s final, bloody scene, Donna becomes innocently entangled in Johnny’s criminal designs. In the lethal confrontation with Rafe and Sunny, it is she who inadvertently costs him his life. Yes, ’twas beauty killed the beast, and it is only in the tearful face of faithful Donna that Johnny Handsome offers some fey ray of hope. 0 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19