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Review: 'Shadrach' dredges up trash from the past

Web posted on:
Wednesday, October 28, 1998 11:36:13 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Am I allowed to say that William Styron has written a pretty lousy screenplay? I sure hope so, because William Styron has written a pretty lousy screenplay. It's for a movie called "Shadrach," and is based on a short story by Styron himself.

"Shadrach" is an earnest Southern period piece, set in rural Virginia during the 1930s, which pretends to deal with the issue of slavery but is actually more about a young boy experiencing his first brush with death. Though it has some significant problems -- the key one being that an ancient former slave is treated more like a sack full of honey than an actual human being -- it isn't a howler. But it's not good, either.

This is something of a family affair. It's directed by Susanna Styron, who happens to sport the screenwriter's last name because she's his daughter. The proceedings look decidedly low budget, but everything is handled with completely unexciting competence.

The countryside is nicely photographed and the Randy Newman-ish music (by wacky underground legend Van Dyke Parks, who's worked with Newman) is often lush. The performances are also generally serviceable, but, oddly enough, the most absurdly false notes come courtesy of the cast's two most experienced members -- Harvey Keitel and Andie MacDowell.

Reminiscent of 'Hallmark'

You've definitely seen this kind of thing before, especially if you've ever watched "Hallmark Hall of Fame." Shadrach is a 99-year-old black man (portrayed, in a way, by John Franklin Sawyer) who's returned to the Virginia plantation where he was born into slavery. He wants to die there and be buried next to his ancestors.

Unfortunately, it's now 1935, so the plantation is long gone. The relatives of the slave masters are still there, though, in the form of a filthy clan of white trash bootleggers led by the husband/wife team of Vernon and Trixie Dabney (Keitel and MacDowell.)

The Dabneys are earthy to a fault. Mama drinks beer after beer, cracking the first one open the minute she rolls out of bed. When she's done with the bottle, she casually tosses it in the front yard. Dirty-faced young 'uns of all ages are running around the joint, and even having sex with their girlfriends in the back seat of the family jalopy ... in broad daylight, while it's parked next to the house.

The youngest son is shunned at the local movie theater because he smells so bad. You wouldn't imagine these guys get together with their friends very often for tea and Milano cookies. I'm no soothsayer, but I see trailers, monster trucks, and cartons of Kool cigarettes on the horizon.

Voice by Martin Sheen

The story is narrated (courtesy of the voice of Martin Sheen, apparently channeling Colonel Sanders) by the adult version of a rich 10-year-old boy who's spending an eventful sojourn with the Dabneys. Paul (Scott Terra) is fascinated by these folks, revelling in the revolting hygiene and barefoot daughters while Sheen poetically reflects on his coming of age.

Big Problem Number 1: Novelists like to include as much illuminating voiceover as possible when adapting their own work, never mind that you can plainly see what's happening right in front of you. This doesn't happen all that often in "Shadrach," but, when it does, the ripeness of the verse is pretty embarrassing.

It seems highly unlikely to me that Paul's parents would allow him to spend more than a few minutes with this lice-infested, gutter-mouthed tribe, but you need to witness the proceedings through the eyes of someone who's capable of reflecting on them. So there he is.

His days are taken up with skinny-dipping, eyeing the girls, and shooting marbles with the smelly kid, until Shadrach shows up on the homestead. The old man senses that he's dying, so he's walked several hundred miles from his current home in Alabama to this godforsaken place. (Note to readers who are approaching the century mark: Try to limit your walking to 50 miles a day.)

Big Problem Number 2: Shadrach can barely speak (and barely move), so he just lays there waiting to die while everyone else muses on his life as a slave. I mean it; Sawyer gets maybe two lines of dialogue in the entire film. Only Paul can understand the guy when he whispers in his ear, so Terra repeats everything he says.

Keitel is one of those actors who's built up so much credibility over the years, no one will ever call him on his excesses.

The device may have worked in a short story, but you can't exactly build up a whole lot of emotion through a translator. Shadrach eventually turns into little more than a dark-skinned totem. People touch him, then come to unexpectedly worldly conclusions. It's like he's the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Keitel's character, as you can probably imagine, is an ornery cuss. He goes through a spiritual transition pretty swiftly, though, deciding that he's going to bury Shadrach on this patch of land whether the local sheriff wants him to or not. Big Problem Number 3: Keitel is one of those actors who's built up so much credibility over the years, no one will ever call him on his excesses.

Some of his scenes in "Shadrach" play just fine, thank you very much, but I'm wondering where he got his Southern accent from. That goes for MacDowell, too, which is doubly amazing because she naturally speaks with a Southern accent. All of a sudden she's drawling her words like they're being dragged out of a lake after a flood.

There's a lesson in all of this, of course, and our narrator is very appreciative of the experience when it's all over. I was, too, but probably not for the same reasons.

"Shadrach" would be family fare, except that the Dabneys are excessively free-spirited with their four-letter words. They don't even use them properly all the time, opting instead to just damn insert 'em wherever the hell they damn please. There's also a shot of a couple of teen-agers hopping out of the car after a quickie and several bare-butt moments during the skinny-dipping. William Faulkner would have loved them Dabneys. Rated PG-13. 91 minutes.

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