I’ve seen most of Robert Altman’s movies, but as with most directors, there are a few gaps here and there. For some reason I had pigeonholed this one as being not one of his best. Don’t know why. And while it is not one of his very best—a high standard indeed—it sure ain’t the worst. In fact, I liked it a lot.
Patricia Neal is Cookie, an aging woman in Holly Springs, Mississippi (a real town, where this was shot), who is slowly losing her mind. (This was Neal’s last movie role other than a tiny part in something called Flying By, ten years later, shortly before her death.) She misses her dead husband terribly, and one day decides to join him in heaven. She leaves a note, puts a pillow over her face, and blows her brains out.
Enter Glenn Close, in the sort of role she is so good at: The domineering bitch. Cookie was her aunt, and she declares that no one in her family would ever commit suicide, it’s just so tacky. So she takes the gun from Cookie’s hand, eats the suicide note, and sets the stage for a burglary-murder by a person unknown. One problem, her not-quite-all-there sister (Julianne Moore), who was with her when the body was found. Close knows she can alter Moore’s reality if she states something intensely enough, so she proceeds to impress on little sis that the suicide never happened. One thing little sis can do is learn her lines—she is appearing in a church production as Salome, directed, of course, by Close, who was born to direct. Everything.
But she’s not a very good writer. Her fake story starts to come apart, and certain flimsy evidence begins to point to Willis (Charles S. Dutton), a black man who has been with Cookie for a long, long time. It’s not a Driving Miss Daisy situation. Willis sees himself as part of the family, as does Cookie, and as does Liv Tyler, as the black sheep daughter of Moore. When he’s arrested Liv barges into the police station and stays with him in his cell, whose door is wide open so they can all play Scrabble with Sheriff Ned Beatty, who declares Willis’s innocence on the basis of “I’ve been fishing with him.” Everybody’s pretty laid-back about it all except a couple of hotshots from the State Police, who are baffled by the attitudes of the locals.
SPOILER WARNING: There’s a spectacularly inept cop (Chris O’Donnell) who has the hots for Liv, who has the hots right back, poor girl. The other cops are quite competent, and before long they get to the real culprit. The ending is poetic justice at its most divine, so wonderful I just couldn’t resist describing it here. Close ends up not charged with misdemeanors like lying to police or destroying evidence or looting the house of everything valuable, on the assumption that it will all go to her. (It doesn’t; Cookie left it all to Willis, who actually is a relative of all of them, despite his black skin). She’s charged with murder! No, no, she wails, it was suicide. So Moore is brought in … and promptly, faithfully tells the cops that no, there was no suicide. There was no gun in Cookie’s hand. Close realizes she has fucked her ownself royally … and we are left to wonder just how stupid and pliable Moore actually was. I say, she saw her chance to break away from the evil bitch, and took it. I was laughing out loud.
Charles S. Dutton has an unusual history. He did two terms in prison, once for manslaughter (he says it was self-defense), got interested in drama in the pen, and has had a long and successful career since then. I’m sure you’ve seen him in any number of movies and TV shows.