'Carolina' graphic, but gripping

December 14, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Notoriety is a two-edged sword, and no film proves that better than "Bastard Out of Carolina."

When Ted Turner decreed the movie's depiction of child abuse in a rural Southern family was too graphic and should be banished from his television kingdom, he ensured that more people would watch it when it was aired somewhere else. No doubt, it will be one of the highest-rated films of the year when it debuts on Showtime at 9 p.m. tomorrow.

But Turner's decree also ensured that viewers would be watching the violence so carefully that they'd pay little attention to the film itself. And that means viewers will gloss over some wonderful performances, particularly by newcomer Jena Malone and a remarkably sure-handed effort from first-time director Anjelica Huston.

Adapted from the novel by Dorothy Allison, "Bastard Out of Carolina" is the story of Ruth Anne Boatwright, nicknamed Bone, and her mother, Anney, whose life has two purposes: getting the word "bastard" removed from Bone's birth certificate and finding happiness with the right man.

If the first objective proves difficult -- and provides the film with its few lighter moments -- the second seems downright impossible. When she finds a good man and marries him, he's killed in a car wreck within a few months. Then she falls in love, more passionately than ever before, with Glen Waddell, a guy who's bad news from the get-go.

We know that because Anney's brother, no saint himself, thinks the guy is slime. And we know that, finally and irrevocably, because on the night his son is stillborn, Daddy Glen sits outside the hospital and molests his young stepdaughter, Bone -- while his even younger stepdaughter sleeps in the back seat.

That scene, while disturbing enough, is nothing compared with the sexual violence that comes later. Huston's unflinching camera leaves nothing to the imagination; Bone is hit in the face, and blood and teeth go flying. Her cries are more horrific than anything you'll see on screen this year.

Anne Meredith's screenplay lays the blame squarely at Glen's feet -- a subplot, suggesting he's no more than the product of an unloving and overbearing father, is more an explanation than an excuse -- yet doesn't excuse Anney, either. She, after all, is the one who can't make the emotional break necessary to protect her daughter. That Bone understands that, yet still loves her, may be the film's most heartbreaking revelation.

Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in one of her best and least-mannered DTC performances as Anney, a woman whose love for her daughter simply isn't strong enough to negate the passion she feels for Glen.

Ron Eldard's Glen is so overwhelmingly evil that you'll be astonished any actor would even accept the part, much less throw himself into it so completely. (The real loser here could be Eldard's sitcom on NBC, "Men Behaving Badly" -- it could be hard to watch him and laugh after this.)

"Bastard Out of Carolina" is strong stuff, not suited to everyone's taste. Consider yourself warned.

Pub Date: 12/14/96

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