Sony // 1978 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // November 20th, 2003
This crazy mixed-up family doesn't stand a chance of winning a million bucks.
Lloyd Bourdelle is a "coonass" Cajun (whatever the hell that terribly un-PC nickname means) who was once a successful horse trainer. But as age and an alcoholic thirst have tattered his reputation, the only mare meat he's been able to professionally prepare more than likely has ended up on some Frenchman's cheval and foie gras sandwich. Like cousin Oliver to that bunch of Bradys, Bourdelle is a jinx when it comes to thoroughbreds. Seems that every horse he gets his callused hands on degenerates into an Elmer's element before long. The arrival of a new colt, named Casey's Shadow after Lloyds' own annoyance of a youngest son, may change all that. Seems that even with the careless career choices of this "coonass," the horse thrives and prospers. Heck, it's even inching toward being a successful racing steed. It does attract the attention of high priced buyers from around the stallion circle. But Lloyd protects his pony, seeing it as his return to respectability and prosperity. When Casey the kid injuries Casey the horse, Bourdelle is warned not to race him. Liquored up Lloyd just can't control himself, however. Much to his three sons' selfish whining, this raccoon's rectum decides to run the stud in the Million Dollar sweepstakes anyway. It will take a miracle to keep this horse's hooves from splitting and its fetlocks from fracturing, but if he can win a few bucks, what does Bourdelle care? After all, Casey's Shadow was a happy accident to begin with. And don't most accidents end up in grievous bodily injury?
Casey's Shadow is a doorway film, a movie that wants to open up the audience's perspective and realm of experience to the unexplored, unknown regions of horse training, impoverished lower Louisiana living, and saddle sores. It doesn't want to have to explain any of it to you; it merely tosses you in, unprepared, and asks you to immerse yourself in the language, the nuances, and the details of the time and place. Problem is, after about thirty minutes ensconced in this grungy, gamy horse story stable, you're overwhelmed by the colt film's flop odor and need to step back into the real world for a cleansing breath of industrialized air. You just can't take any more of little Casey's irritating irresponsibility, Walter Matthau's Justin (by way of Woodrow) Wilson Creole accent, or the live horse birth footage. (Someone call Something Weird right now...time for an equine roadshow DVD pronto!) But Casey's Shadow wants you to hang around the fetid farmhouse a little while longer. It has even more colic inspired supposed humor to waft in your direction and the remaining hour and a half is equally fragrant. Billed as a quirky comic tale for the whole family but playing more like a hack act of faux Acadian desperation, there is very little to like about this story of impoverished people living like pigs. When a movie uses the throwing of a teenager into a bathtub filled with rancid dirty dishes and dark brown barf water as a hilarious hijinx, you know that the rest of the film can't be any more subtle. But you'd be wrong. Casey's Shadow's outlandish moments pale in comparison to its tone poem attempts at capturing the flavor and feel of the bayou. This is one gumbo that stinks of the glue factory.
The truth is, Casey's Shadow is not all that bad, it's just a tad unbelievable. Walter Matthau may have been an actor of uncommon ability and talent, but he has always given off an air of sarcastic urbanity. So what do the geniuses behind this movie do? They try and turn him into a dirty poor itinerate horse trainer living from one gambling wager to the next just to keep himself and his family in filth. Problem is, you never believe that he is. This is Henry Graham. This is Oscar Madison. This is Willie Gingrich. This is Miles Kendig, for friggs sake! And yet we get the scruffy face, the Mario Brothers moustache, and the hideous pickled Paul Prudhomme enunciation and we're supposed to stop and say "Whoo child. This be one mighty swamp rat I GAR-RONE-TEE." But it just doesn't work. Matthau is slumming here, picking up a paycheck for playing poor. Then there is the whole story of Casey and the horse. Matthau warns the child that mistreating the steed will potentially cost the family their ability to survive. The horse is their entire life and livelihood wrapped into one racing machine. Yet every chance he gets, Casey endangers the colt. Honestly, if you gave this kid a pistol and told him not to shoot this stallion, within ten seconds you'd have one horsehide riddled with bullet holes. This urchin's got a bronco endangerment streak that cannot be quelled. He's not satisfied with simply startling the steed. No, he must splint its shins and hyperextend his hindquarters. Combine this with the crass cutthroat antics of people plotting against this pony, and the unbelievable aspects just keep adding up.
Had it tried to be more focused and less yokel, Casey's Shadow may have worked. But it's also stuck in a formula that requires there to be a third act finale race, a huge event with everything on the line and a big lesson to be learned by all those rooting on either side. It tries to balance kid-friendly foolishness with teen heartthrob hunks to keep the Junior Misses itching their culottes. Then add on top the weird Louisiana dialects (Just what is a coonass? I'm afraid to ask) and Snidely Whiplash villains (both male and female), and the movie buckles under its own basic features. The air of authenticity that director Martin Ritt tries to achieve seems store bought, fashioned out of a Hollywood model of what indigent bog life is all about. Whenever a horse race comes along, you're assured to get slow motion close-ups of animal thighs pumping and Matthau's eyes glistening. And the missing mother family dynamic of the Bourdelle house is completely ignored, used merely as fodder for lame jokes and interfamilial squabbles. In the end, Casey's Shadow can't decide if it's a child-chiding flick (sure has a lot of curse words for Junior ears) or a slice of life look at the wild and wicked world of competitive horse breeding. Either way, it's too tactile for its own good while still playing by a set of rules that are as rote and familiar as any Tinseltown animalistic cliché-fest.
Columbia TriStar makes matters worse by panning and scanning poor Casey's Shadow into a grainy, jittery 1.33:1 full screen farce that completely undermines the locations and setting used in the film. Wide-open vistas become cramped picture postcards in this horrendous transfer, and any attempts at thematic compositions by Ritt are ruined in the constant sweep of the optical printer lens. The resulting zoom renders the image coarse and fuzzy. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Mono is clean and crisp, with the music and dialogue mixed just right. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features on the disc, even though a scan of the Internet Movie Database shows that there was a making of documentary called, surprisingly, The Making of Casey's Shadow produced at the same time as the movie. It would have been nice to include this purposefully created publicity piece on the disc, or even gather up a few of the sons for a commentary track, but this would all pre-suppose that Columbia TriStar cared about how this title was handled. They don't (and their soft soap cover art which makes this movie look like Air Bud Goes to the Steeplechase shows just how off base they are here), and it's hard to say that Casey's Shadow is worth it. Maybe in its proper aspect ratio it comes alive. Perhaps with a load of bonus features the flaws in the film would seem less noticeable. But without the chimes and chimera, all that is left is one lousy horse and pony show. It's time to put this stupid steed out to pasture once and for all.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG