USA 1998, 117 minutes
Holly Springs is a quiet little town in Mississippi. The Easter pageant, an amateur and amateurish reworking of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, is the high (or perhaps the low) point of the season. Nothing much happens in Holly Springs – until widowed Cookie Orcutt, sadly alone in her mansion, decides it’s time to join her husband and reaches for her gun. To avoid scandal Cookie’s niece Camille chooses to present the suicide as murder. But if there’s a murder there has to be a murderer, and before long Willis, a middle-aged black man who does odd jobs for Cookie, is accused.
It sounds like the beginning of a Southern Gothic tale, with family skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard and perhaps a good old- fashioned lynching. Most of the women are eccentric if not actually mad; the men are absent, vaguely sinister, or slightly absurd. But this is a gentler tale, at times almost whimsical. The film pokes gentle fun at the foibles of small-town folk, but finds in them genuine warmth and a kind of quirky integrity. Robert Altman is on his best form for some time, combining two strands of his work; the expansive, freewheeling cast-of-dozens films of the Seventies and his later, almost chamber-scale movies. The old energy and bite of, say, M*A*S*H may be lacking, but his idiosyncratic style and human values are not: it’s very much an Altman film. The large and strong cast is headed by Glenn Close and Patricia Neal, returning after a long absence to tackle the title role with zest and aplomb, while Liv Tyler and Charles Dutton have a comic rapport that gives the film some of its warmest moments.
Not much happens in Holly Springs, and what does happens at a leisurely southern pace. You have to slow down to go there, and accept the shaggy-dog elements of a well-told story without too much analysis. Yes, the family has its skeletons and secrets, but in the end what seems to be yet another tale about a dysfunctional family turns out to be a celebration of family ties – even if they’re not what anyone thought.
Cookie Orcutt: Patricia Neal
Camille Dixon: Glenn Close
Emma Duvall: Liv Tyler
Julianne Moore: Etchie Stroh
Willis Richland: Charles S Dutton
Lester Boyle: Ned Beatty
Director: Robert Altman
Producers: Robert Altman, Cora Duvall
Screenplay: Anne Rapp
Photography: Toyomichi Kurita
Editor: Abraham Lim
“Best film this season. Beautifully laconic. Altman at his very best. Lost of grijn (?) though!”
“Very funny. Lovely, sleepy deep South eccentricity. Wonderful characters”
“A surprise! Good for Cora, who KNEW what she was doing. A very enjoyable film”
“Two of the best: most enjoyable”
“Nice music in both films”
“I’d like to believe that the Misissippi police are as politically correct as here portrayed – have they really moved on so far from Sidney Poitier’s Mr Tibbs?”
“Sufferin’ catfish, man! That sure was some performance from Glenn Close”
“A travesty of justice – or just a travesty?”
“Confusing – and confused not only the police!”