"Big Bad Love" is a calculated risk that succeeds in evoking what it means to be a fiction writer as few films have. Shot through with beauty, pain and humor, this complex and intimate film is drawn from the short story collection of the same name by Mississippi writer Larry Brown. It stars Arliss Howard as Brown alter ego Leon Barlow.
This deeply felt, affecting film is a family affair: Howard also directed and collaborated on the script with his younger brother James, and Arliss Howard's wife, Debra Winger, co-stars and served as producer.
Shot on location in Holly Springs, Miss., by the gifted cinematographer Paul Ryan, "Big Bad Love" unfolds in a verdant community of comfortable old homes with lots of space around them. In this sleepy place past, present and future seem to flow easily among one another. No one senses this more acutely than Leon, who in writing fiction draws upon the memories, dreams and imaginings through which the film threads freely, moving back and forth almost constantly. "Nothing is real to you except what's in your head," says Velma (Rosanna Arquette), wife of Leon's best friend and war buddy Monroe (Paul Le Mat), and in a sense she's right about a man she's known all her life. Reality, however, is closing in on Leon, a lean man with a receding hairline and a rich, poetic Southern sensibility. Leon's determination to become a writer has already cost him his marriage to a woman he deeply loves, Marilyn (Winger), a hospital nurse and mother to their two small children. Leon has custody on the weekends, and while he's lousy at keeping up with child support payments, he tells great bedtime stories. So far Leon has faced rejection after rejection of his work but at last an agent offers appreciation and encouragement, but how long can he hold out before he and his life disintegrate completely?
Yet this downward trajectory, fueled by quantities of liquor, is fodder for Leon's creativity, and it increasingly becomes clear that he will keep on writing even if it kills him. It is no wonder that the radiant Marilyn, who clearly still loves Leon as much as he loves her, has put distance between them. Meanwhile, Leon's mother (Angie Dickinson), a durably elegant Southern belle, fears that he is as feckless as her late husband.
Leon's curse of remembering, however, may also prove to be his blessing. The risk he takes in dedicating himself to writing is mirrored by the risk the film takes in showing so much through his eyes--eyes that see the past as sharply and as frequently as the present.
A film that switches continually and with little warning between its protagonist's various states of mind makes lots of demands upon its cast. Even through Leon's bouts of drunkenness, Howard manages to maintain compassion for Leon, valiant in his struggle and aware of its cost to others, especially Marilyn, who Winger shows us ever-shifting between defensiveness, exasperation and love. Fine ensemble support is supplied by Dickinson, Arquette, Le Mat and Michael Parks as the philosophical proprietor of the local grocery and gas station.
"Big Bad Love" is all of a piece, with its soundtrack echoing every shift in mood and emotion as harmoniously as the camera. It is an aptly imaginative blend of artists from the legendary Fat Possum label such as R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, Asie Payton and Kenny Brown. Also heard on the soundtrack are Tom Waits, who wrote two new songs for the film, Steve Earle, and a new collaboration between Tom Verlaine and the Kronos Quartet.
"Big Bad Love" is brave and admirable for the trust that it puts in a viewer's intuition and willingness in going along with it right through to its rewarding finish.
MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: Complex adult themes.
'Big Bad Love'
Arliss Howard ... Leon Barlow
Debra Winger ... Marilyn
Paul Le Mat ... Monroe
Rosanna Arquette ... Velma
Angie Dickinson ... Mrs. Barlow
An IFC release. Director Arliss Howard. Producer Debra Winger. Executive producers Manfred Wilde & Barry Navidi, and Howard & Winger. Screenplay James Howard & Arliss Howard; based on stories by Larry Brown. Cinematographer Paul Ryan. Editor Jay Rabinowitz. Original songs by Tom Waits. Music supervisor Joe Mulherin. Production and costume design by Patricia Norris. Set decorator Leslie Morales. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
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