Honkytonk Man (1982)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Clancy Carlile, based on his novel
Produced by Clint Eastwood
The star attractions in Honkytonk Man are the roadhouses that chew up and spit out an endless cycle of musicians. The film was a rare — but in retrospect not really surprising — commercial letdown from Clint Eastwood while he reigned as the biggest movie star in the world. Instead of good guys and bad guys, this is a story about a country bluesman who lives and dies according to the rules of the songs he releases into the night. Not exactly Escape From Alcatraz. The smokehouse lighting by Bruce Surtees and antique world designed by Edward Carfagno recreate the pit stops of the Dust Bowl with a savage beauty unparalleled among films set against the Great Depression, but the dramatic tissue needed to connect the set pieces together disappears like a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Directing his ninth film in 11 years, Eastwood assembled his finest cast yet. Verna Bloom and Matt Clark are the matriarch and patriarch of a farm family. Bette Ford, Barry Corbin, Tim Thomerson and Tracey Walter are characters encountered on the road, while country western legends Marty Robbins and Porter Wagoneer make appearances. The biggest gamble though was Eastwood casting his son Kyle — who’s grown into a successful career as a jazz bassist — as his character’s nephew. The junior Eastwood comes off more like a real kid than a coy child actor. Honkytonk Man has a subtle sort of grace and forces little, but at the same time, the material barely seems to warrant a feature film, with characters and incidents that come and go while the atmosphere is what stays in the air.
As a dust storm descends on a farm in Oklahoma, a Lincoln convertible swerves onto the property and knocks down a windmill. Emmy (Verna Bloom) recognizes the driver as her brother Red Stovall (Clint Eastwood), dead drunk. Her 14-year-old son Whit (Kyle Eastwood) has his sights set on life beyond that of a cotton picker and is beguiled by the automobile and the guitar case inside. Whit’s father (Matt Clark) discovers a letter that reveals Red has been invited to try out for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. When his driving is revealed to be an improvement over his uncle’s, Whit is permitted to take Red to a local honkytonk, where his uncle picks up extra cash for the road picking his guitar and singing. Red then enlists his nephew’s aid settling a debt by sneaking into a chicken coop and making off with the poultry.
With the family pulling up stakes for California, Red asks his sister if she’ll allow Whit to drive him to Nashville. Not wanting her reckless brother — stricken with tuberculosis — to be alone, she agrees. Along for the journey is Grandpa (John McIntire), who feels he’s too old to start over and prefers to die in his birthplace of Tennessee. On the road, Red and Whit are chased by a bull, visit a whorehouse in Tulsa where $2 buys Whit his first sexual experience, unwittingly rob a roadhouse to collect money owed Red by a smalltime hood (Barry Corbin) and pick up a starry eyed 16-year-old named Marlene (Alexa Kenin) who wants to be anywhere but Oklahoma. Arriving in Nashville, Red’s sickness cuts a promising radio career short, but fate has one more twist in store for the honkytonk man.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 14 users: 93% for Honkytonk Man
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available
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