I love 70s movies. This is a topic I will return to. The most relevant reason for my love of 70s cinema is that it was the last time Hollywood dealt regularly and evenly with the rural working class. My original choice for this week was the Burt Reynolds vehicle Gator (available to stream for free with Amazon Prime), but I wound up rewatching Rush with my wife’s family, so Rush it is. Rush was made in 1991, but it is a 70s movie in more than setting. And it is a period piece that doesn’t commit the usual sin of getting cutesy and clever about it.
Rush takes place in 1975. Rush is based on a largely autobiographical novel inspired by Kim Wozencraft’s stint as a narc in Tyler, Texas, but the movie is set in an undisclosed location that is probably somewhere on the Gulf coast between Houston and Corpus.
Kristen Cates, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is a rookie narcotics officer is paired up with veteran officer Jim Raynor, played by Jason Patric. Jim isn’t old, but after going for early-career Jim Morrison in The Lost Boys, Jason Patric goes for late-career Jim Morrison here, and like late-career Jim Morrison, Jim Raynor wears his years pretty damn heavy.
Rush opens with a really beautiful long take tracking shot that isn’t super long but is impressive as it follows Kristen and Jim’s primary nemesis, Will Gaines, as he walks through his very crowed dance hall, the camera lingering and sweeping across patrons in turn. Will Gaines, by the way, is played by none other than Greg Allman. The director won’t hardly let him talk, probably because she didn’t trust Allman’s acting chops, but Allman just standing around glowering and shaking his head makes for a pretty damn effective villain.
From there we shift to Jim and his supervisor, Dodd, played by the inestimable Sam Elliott (elevating the whole damn thing, even in a supporting part), standing by the track where police academy graduates are training. They are casually talking about whose life to ruin. Jim picks out Kristen. Dodd thinks he wants to fuck her. Jim wants to fuck her. But she’s got an edge to her. It isn’t clear whether Jim thinks that makes her suited for the line of work or an acceptable sacrifice.
Rush really thrives in digging into the mid-70s—War on Drugs freshly declared, the violent crime rate still spiking, the hippies disillusioned, and the country boys said fuck it and grew out their hair and beard.
It is a beautiful, ugly picture of working class 70s Texas. Everybody is just trying to work hard and blow off a little steam, but rub a bit and you’ll see the jagged edges. It ain’t all buying speed off of cocktail waitresses and friendly construction worker-car thieves. Rush revels in a series of encounters with greasy, seedy drug dealers. Jim and Kristen’s attempts to police drugs inevitably wind up with what we see Archie Bunker (in a different context) call “A little too much of each, and not enough of either.” Jim most of all.
They hired Eric Clapton to do the soundtrack for the movie, and the music is perfect from the house band to the atmospheric guitar riffs (admittedly laid on a bit thick, but you won’t catch me complaining).
But what I really love about Rush is an endgame that is very hillbilly. SPOILERS below the pic.
The movie provides an unnecessary setup. Very early in their partnership, Jim tells Kristen, “All I know is that if somebody shoots your partner, you don’t leave it for the lawyers to sort it out.”
A bit here about the last third of the movie, though, is necessary to set the stage:
Jim’s inability to “kick the covers a bit” leaves them at the mercy of an acting police chief who “tends to see things in fundamentalist terms.” A little drug use by an undercover narcotics officer he can understand and accept; Will Gaines owning two bars and worse the peep shows out on the highway he cannot. Solve one and he will solve the other. But Will Gaines doesn’t so much as talk to “anyone he don’t know from Houston.” So Jim and Kristen do what cops do—they plant drugs.
They try to hide out between bail and trial but someone—their police work led to the arrest of dozens—finds them and sticks a shotgun in Kristen’s face from the window of their rented trailer. She lives but gets to watch Jim bleed out from getting shot in the leg.
Kristen is set to repeat her grand jury testimony at trial until Gaines makes the same motion on his face with his finger that the gunman made with the shotgun. She recants her testimony—implicating the acting police chief in her perjury—and the soon-to-be-a-free-man Gaines shakes his head at her weakness.
But it wasn’t weakness that moved her. The hillbilly code has a violent conception of honor. Death is cheap and honor dear. (Their cooperator Walker demonstrates this by hanging himself rather than testify against his friends.) To lie, even to put a man like Gaines away, is dishonorable. To let his violence pass unanswered is worse. The movie ends with Gaines learning the error of his ways. Kristen did not recant (and likely earn herself a prison sentence, as Wozencraft herself did) because she was cowed by Gaines. She recanted so she could kill the son of a bitch herself.
5 of 5 Stars.
Matt Wedge at Obsessive Movie Nerd – review.
Don Clinchy at Slackerwood – review.
Nick Clement at We Are Cult – review.
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