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Sam Shepard: The King Returns

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Sam Shepard, with Jason Patric, in Walker Payne.  

Once you go to enough film festivals, you learn to scale your expectations. As much as you hope to see some artfully realized, subtly noncommercial piece of human drama, you’re too often left with something more blunt and over-schematic, little dramas that strive for profundity, while relying on grinding contrivances, literal dialogue, and blunt plot devices. But sometimes, you enjoy yourself anyway. Films are complex creatures, with plenty of players and pleasures. And sometimes, you begin to notice the little things: a sharp supporting performance, an exciting young cinematographer or—in the case of Walker Payne—a roaring turn by one of cinema’s old lions.

As a down-on-his-luck blue-collar hero who has to turn to dog-fighting to save his kids, Jason Patric has a chance to deliver a career-resuscitating performance, but he’s just solid here, not brilliant. As his one-note witch of a wife, Drea DeMatteo has a chance to show her range—but just keeps barking the same note over and over again. That’s why I spent most of the film waiting for the return of Sam Shepard. Looking better than ever—wrinkles etched all over his legendary face—the playwright-actor delivers one of his most elemental performances.

Dressed in a too-tight suit and snakeskin boots, Shepard plays the classic “stranger comes to town,” a con artist who chews on his scams like they’re plugs of tobacco. He’s more Pan than hustler, a trickster who starts a nasty world of trouble, and generates the film's one unforgettable shot: Standing on the pitcher’s mound of a small town’s empty baseball field, Shepard shuffles his boots in the dirt and stares up into the dirty stadium lights, tuning that deep, Western-loving voice to the primal rhythm of some old soulful hymn. As that sinner who can’t help but sing, Shepard—in this one beautiful scene, at least—stands straight and skinny as a kind of prototypical American man, crooked to the core but practically regal. I couldn’t help but think of Mark Twain, and that no-good drifter who met Huck on the banks of the Mississippi, that shady character who swore to Huck that he wasn’t a crook, no, but good fortune’s rightful heir: “Yes, gentlemen,” he said—as Shepard’s grifter might well have said—“You see before you, in blue jeans and misery, the wanderin', exiled, trampled-on, and sufferin' rightful King of France.” So what if this isn't much of a film? It's a chance to pay tribute.


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