Heavy-handed, pretentious and weighed down by a spectacularly strange central performance, Steven Zaillian’s All the King’s Men is ultimately a failure. However, it’s the kind of admirable failure that’s worth seeing for what it tries to do — and for what it sometimes accomplishes.
It’s certainly nowhere near the artistic disaster it’s been painted as. In some ways, it’s just not the movie that was expected, which is to say that it’s less a remake of Robert Rossen’s 1949 Oscar winner (which Zaillian claims to have never seen) than an honest attempt to bring the poetic prose of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel to the screen — and make it relevant to current times.
Comparisons between the two films are of value only as a demonstration of how different their approaches and aims are. The plots are the same: Both deal with politician Willie Stark, a shrewd hick who makes his redneck status a political virtue and rises to the office of governor of Louisiana, only to suffer a spectacular fall into demagoguery and total corruption. Both are based on the book, and all three works are based on real-life Governor Huey Long. Rossen’s film, however, is gritty, unadorned, straightforward and as realistic as was possible in 1949 Hollywood filmmaking. Zaillian’s film is heavily stylized — more in the Southern gothic mode — and literary-minded to a fault.
Time and time again Zaillian adopts a kind of symbolism that perhaps works better on the printed page than on the screen. Consider the scene where the image of Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet) “dissolves” from view after her unconsummated tryst with Jack Burden (Jude Law), and how Zaillian reinforces the impact of this lost moment by repeating a shot of her disappearing under the waters of a lake. Look at the film’s climax, with the rivulets of blood flowing along the etched rivers of an image of the state of Louisiana until they meet. On the page, this sort of thing seems less forced than it does on film, where it runs the risk of becoming risible. That said, it’s somehow heartening to see a filmmaker willing to run such a risk.
The structure of the film is also more poetic than realistic, with bits of scenes recurring at various points in the film as if they were key lines that are repeated at appropriate places in the narrative. And again, this is a laudable effort on the part of the filmmaker. Similarly, it’s interesting that Zaillian’s film is less about Willie Stark than it is an almost Faulknerian study of the decay of a kind of Southern aristocracy that was heaving its last sigh in the era in which Zaillian has set the film. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons that Zaillian changed the period of the story from the 1930s to the 1950s — to better underline the fact that Jack Burden and Anne and Adam Stanton are the unstable final children of an upper-class society that was riddled with instability and corruption at least a generation before. It is, after all, the corruption beneath the genteel veneer of that society that helps allow a populist rabble-rouser like Stark to flourish.
I’ve seen Zaillian criticized for structuring the film so that the viewer knows from the onset that Stark isn’t the hayseed he presents himself as. We see Willie Stark fully formed from the first scene in the film, and only then do we learn of his beginnings. We know where this is going — that Stark is no “good ol’ boy” commoner, but a self-aggrandizing sharpie out to sucker the hicks into believing he’s just like them — and, as a result, Stark’s early actions are shown to be ingenuous at best. This isn’t sloppy thinking on Zaillian’s part; it’s a rethinking for our times. His reading of Stark is less that of an innocent rube who was destroyed and ruined by power than it is one of a power-seeking sociopath who presents himself as a “regular guy” in order to get what and where he wants. If you’re tempted to read more current political figures who have struck the same pose into this, the film won’t stop you, nor do the parallels seem accidental. Again, all this is well and good.
Each of these points is valid and intellectually and artistically sound. The problem is they never quite work together as a whole; the film remains a collection of terrific ideas that never meld. Bravura set-pieces and isolated moments of brilliance hang in mid-air like the slightly vibrating chandelier in Judge Irwin’s (Anthony Hopkins) dining room when he loudly gives his refusal to retract his denunciation of Stark. There’s no strong frame to support them. Worse, the film is always more intellectually satisfying than emotionally satisfying. The various parts make it constantly interesting, but they do not make it compelling drama. And this isn’t the fault of dodgy Southern accents (frankly, I got used to those early on) or miscasting, it’s the fault of the writing, which captures the word without really getting at the spirit of the piece.
And then there’s Sean Penn’s performance as Willie Stark. This isn’t just Penn at his two-fisted Oscar-bait worst (though it’s that too). Penn plays the entire film as if he’s a spoiled child who just figured out that he isn’t really the central figure in the story — and so he makes so much bluster and noise that he can’t be ignored. Festooned with the worst haircut of his career (and that’s saying something), he rants and raves, flails his arms and often gesticulates like a demented hula dancer having a fit. The results are somewhere between scary and funny, though the scariest thing is that it’s being palmed off as great acting. Mostly, it overbalances the film, dashing any chance All the King’s Men might have had to even get near the important drama it so desperately wants to be. In the end, it’s not a good film, but it’s an intriguing one with a lot of good things in it — along with a lot of not-so-good things. Rated PG-13 for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke