Eccentric and flavorful, the sole directorial effort by novelist/screenwriter Thomas McGuane is slight on story but long an atmosphere. The sweaty tale of a conflict between two guide-boat captains in Key West, 92 in the Shade has a quintessentially ’70s cast filled with actors who nail McGuane’s weird dialogue, plus realistic locations that lend credibility. Peter Fonda stars as Tom Skelton, an easygoing young man who decides to become a guide-boat captain squiring tourists around the Everglades. This antagonizes Nichol Dance (Warren Oates), a hair-triggered boat captain working the same area. Undaunted, Tom opens for business. However, because McGuane is more interested in the subtle nuances of offbeat behavior than the predictable rhythms of macho brutality, 92 in the Shade depicts adversaries who don’t really want to hurt each other. As a result, many scenes feature the funny/sad subtext of Nichol begging Tom to back off so things won’t spiral into violence.
McGuane also devotes lots of screen time to tasty subplots, like the domestic travails of another boat captain, Carter (Harry Dean Stanton), and his frustrated wife, Jeannie (Elizabeth Ashley); Carter’s a working slob trying to pay the bills, but Jeannie’s a former majorette eager to enjoy the lifestyle to which she anticipates becoming accustomed. Another thread involves Tom’s ailing father (William Hickey), who sits outdoors in a mosquito net while he bickers with Tom’s grandfather (Burgess Meredith), a lawyer who relishes his small amount of regional influence. As Hickey whines in a typically ornate McGuane turn of phrase, “Your grandfather’s Huey Long complex has finally put him beyond communication.”
In fact, McGuane’s dialogue is the best reason to watch the movie. Oates gets to spew some of the most peculiar lines, whether explaining his fantasy of becoming Arnold Palmer’s caddy or issuing confounding declarations like, “I’m the kinda guy who’d fuck a brush pile if I thought there was a snake in there.” Whether the line actually means anything is beside the point, because Oates is so good at incarnating rural misfits that the medium becomes the message. The only cast member who isn’t given interesting material is leading lady Margot Kidder, but one suspects she wasn’t hired for her acting chops, since she spends the movie strutting around in miniscule tops that—well, let’s just say Kidder had ample ventilation while shooting in humid locations. 92 in the Shade has more texture than substance, but for those who dig this particular period in character-driven cinema, it’s an enjoyable lark filled with enthusiastic performances.
92 in the Shade: GROOVY