"The Rain People" *** (out of ****)
The American movies of the late 1960s and 70s often focused on "lost souls", characters trying to escape the world around them and "find" themselves. The most emblematic movie of this genre was "Easy Rider" (1969), though the Academy Award winner "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) had elements of it as well. As did "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and "The Graduate" (1967).
These movies reflect the growing sentiment among the youth of the 60s of "feeling lost". There was great unrest in the world at this time; The Vietnam War, the May 1968 uprising in France, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement and the Cultural Revolution in China.
Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rain People" (1969) follows in this tradition. The movie focuses on a young, white suburbanite female, Natalie (Shirley Knight). She is married to Vinny (Robert Modica). One morning she wakes up before him, gets dressed, writes him a note, visits her parents and decides to leave her husband. She hits the road in her station wagon.
Why does she do it? Where is she going? She does it because she has realized her life is planned out. She is married, lives a comfortable life, discovers she is pregnant, will spend the next few years raising the child (one assumes) and then what? It all seems so sudden. Isn't there more to life? As for where is she going, well, that's the point of the movie. She doesn't know. That is what makes the movie speak to the times and the generation that watched it upon its first release. She is "lost", just like the youth at the time. She is headed on the road with no destination.
Along the way Natalie meets a hitchhiker, Jimmy (James Caan) a college football player nicknamed "killer". The school, for reasons unknown to Jimmy and Natalie (at first), has kicked Jimmy out and has given him $1,000. Jimmy is going to visit his ex-girlfriend because her father once offered him a job. Now that he is out of school, Jimmy would like to take him up on his offer.
Natalie, who perhaps was feeling lonely agrees to pick him up and take him to his destination. Although the movie suggest she finds the young man attractive. Is Natalie after a few thrills? Was that her problem? She wanted to experience the "free love" movement? Maybe. The movie doesn't do much to suggest otherwise.
And so "The Rain People" becomes the story of two "lost souls". Two people traveling in a car with no place to go. We slowly learn about Jimmy and his football glory. We slowly learn why the school has kicked him out. We learn why his girlfriend broke up with him.
The problem is Natalie. We stop learning about her. Coppola, who also wrote the movie, doesn't allow Natalie to grow. We learn everything about her at the beginning of the movie. There are no new insights. No revealing moments. There is nothing there.
The only surprise is she accepts the advances of a police officer, Gordon (Robert Duvall) who takes her out for a cup of coffee after he has written her a speeding ticket.
It is difficult to make a movie and have an unlikable lead character and still have an audience interested in what happens. I didn't find Natalie to be likable. I understand the abstract concept of not knowing your place in the world. I understand not knowing what to do with your life. But, I don't like how Natalie goes about finding the answers. In fact, I don't even believe she is looking.
At least in a movie like "Easy Rider" they meet people from different walks of life. They interact. They learn from these people. By the end of the picture they have changed. They have grown. Natalie hasn't. By the end of the picture she is the same dazed and confused woman she was at the beginning of the picture.
What makes "The Rain People" interesting is it an a curiosity piece. Here we have an early Francis Ford Coppola film pre-"The Godfather" (1972). We are able to see his roots. Where he started from. What kind of stories did he want to tell. "The Rain People" feels like a personal project. And believe it or not both movies share something in common. They are about an American dream. About an ideal. Natalie may not know what she is after but she believes there is something better out there.
It is also interesting to see Duvall and Caan in early roles and we see Coppola's association goes back with them. No wonder he casted them in "The Godfather". I wish "The Rain People" would have spoken to me a bit more. I wish I could have connected with it a bit more. It is an interesting effort with a relateable idea. I just didn't warm up to the lead character. Jimmy on the other hand had my sympathy. There's a guy Coppola should have made a movie about.