Judge Bryan Pope believes that sometimes, what happens on the back roads should stay on the back roads.
"A whore is a sixteen-year-old with a bad reputation. I am a hustler."
According to my good friend Miriam Webster, a hustler is one who obtains money by fraud or deception. Hmm, deception. After watching director Martin Ritt's misfire, Back Roads, deceived is precisely how you might feel. It's difficult not to expect great things from the man who helmed Hud, The Great White Hope, Sounder (in my opinion, his greatest work) and Norma Rae. Back Roads wants so badly to be another of Ritt's raw, honest stories about ordinary people living extraordinary lives—but, like its desperate characters, it gets lost somewhere along the way.
Facts of the Case
Times are hard in Mobile, Alabama, especially for Amy Post (Sally Field) and Elmore Pratt (Tommy Lee Jones). She's a $20-a-pop hooker who had to give her son up for adoption, and he's an amateur boxer and petty thief. Flat broke and, in her case, almost busted, the two set off for Los Angeles in search of greener pastures and new lives.
The road picture has proven to be a fairly reliable template when it comes to Hollywood storytelling. You have the Crosby/Hope road pictures, of course. Thelma and Louise and—a personal favorite of mine—Fandango. Don't forget Ishtar. Okay, so the formula doesn't always work. For another example of a botched attempt, albeit one with loftier goals than Ishtar, I give you Back Roads. Two years after collecting accolades for their Norma Rae, Ritt and the indomitable Field teamed up for this grungy fable about two wounded souls at the end of their ropes who may have found redemption with each other. Along the way, they meet the usual assortment of odd types you find in this sort of picture. There's the seemingly endless parade of sleazy johns lining up to be robbed by Amy and Elmore. There's Mason (David Keith), the sailor/pinball wizard who becomes instantly (and inexplicably) enamored with Amy, before figuring out her chosen vocation (so green is he, this realization takes him a couple of days). Most memorable is Angel (played with effective menace by Miriam Colon, who was so incredibly good in John Sayles' Lone Star), the lady pimp who serves as the film's unlikely—if physically and verbally abusive—voice of reason.
The one question—and it's a crucial one—that I kept asking myself is: Why don't I care more about Amy and Elmore? What is Back Roads trying to say about them and people like them? That simply being dealt life's hard knocks should entitle such petty thieves and con artists to a "get out of jail free" card when it comes to audience sympathy? Should we admire Amy simply on the virtue that she's played by Sally Field?
Let's talk about Field. Looking as shiny as a freshly-minted quarter, she isn't for a moment convincing as a woman turning tricks. Field is a talented, resourceful actress, and I like her. I really like her. (Some jokes never get old.) But even an actress as capable as she can occasionally be mismatched with wrong material, and Back Roads is a textbook example. True, she wears slit mini skirts and displays ample cleavage, but Field is a strangely asexual being here. So matter-of-fact is she when trying to attract clientele, you'd swear she was offering to shampoo their carpets.
Jones fares better as Elmore. With his usual rough edges, he alternates between dangerous and charismatic, and his performance is fluid and natural. It helps that, with his unconventional looks, he fits more naturally into Ritt's seedy bars and back streets. It helps too that he doesn't have to grapple with a heavy-handed backstory the way Amy does. Still, his prior relationship with Amy is never clearly defined, and we're never quite sure what he's after, other than perhaps the next meager scam.
Back Roads finds some success as a series of amusing vignettes (a botched attempt at hopping a moving train, a misadventure in a diner), but these moments are few and far between, never amounting to much. Most shocking is the film's abrupt, inconclusive ending. After subjecting us poor viewers to 90 minutes waiting for redemption to arrive for Amy and Elmore, Ritt reveals himself to be the movie's most skilled hustler: While we were waiting for that promised pot of gold, he skipped out on us.
I'm reminded of what Elmore tells Amy before finally going west toward the beginning of the film: "We are gonna be traveling on wit and grit, gal. I sure as hell hope and pray to the good Lord in Heaven you ain't left yours back in Mobile." I hate to break it to you, friend, but somebody involved with Back Roads forgot to pack it, leaving us with a movie that takes its sweet time on a long road to nowhere.
Paramount has seen fit to give Back Roads a solid widescreen anamorphic transfer, and, for such a little movie from 1981, it's a beauty. The package comes with Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround audio tracks, and they're also very clean, offering a nice balance between the dialogue and Henry Mancini's (!) soft pop tunes and understated score. English subtitles are included, but nary a trace of extras.
An awkward, incomplete project with little apparent purpose, Back Roads is not among the finest work produced by Ritt or his leads. With no extras but a fine transfer, I recommend this package for Sally Field completists only.
I'm afraid this court doesn't look favorably upon hustlers, even if one of them is Sally Field. You're busted, darlin'.
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