Provocative themes related to counterculture idealism, illegal drugs, police corruption, and the Vietnam War intersect in Who’ll Stop the Rain, an exceptionally well-made drama/thriller that, somehow, never quite gels. The film is praiseworthy in many important ways, boasting evocative production values, sensitive performances, and suspenseful situations, so the picture’s shortcomings are outweighed by its plentiful virtues. Nonetheless, Who’ll Stop the Rain is frustrating, because judicious editing—or, better still, bolder reimagining during the process of translating the source material into a film script—could have accentuated the most important elements while also providing greater clarity and simplicity. Some background: Robert Stone, the author of the underlying novel and also the co-writer the script, ran with a cool crowd in the ’60s and ’70s, gaining insight into hipster icons ranging from Neil Cassady to Ken Kesey. Stone also amalgamated data about the role dope played in the lives of U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam. The writer blended these ideas, plus notions from his fertile imagination, into the novel Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1975. Alas, Stone’s story got muddy on the way to the screen.
The picture follows three interconnected characters. During a prologue set in Vietnam, burned-out journalist John Converse (Michael Moriarty) hatches a get-rich scheme: He buys a stash of heroin, and then recruits his friend, soldier Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte), to smuggle the smack inside a military transport when Hicks returns to America. Right away, this set-up illuminates the textured character dynamics at work in Who’ll Stop the Rain; there’s a great moment when Hicks expresses surprise Converse is willing to use him so brazenly, thus revealing how deeply Converse’s idealism has been eroded by the ugliness of war. Hicks mules the package successfully, but unloading the drugs stateside proves troublesome. Converse’s wife, Marge (Tuesday Weld), has become a prescription-drug addict and therefore can’t arrange Hicks’ payoff as instructed. Worse, a corrupt DEA agent (Anthony Zerbe) pounces on the Converse home—while Hicks is there with the drugs—in order to steal the narcotics and wipe out anyone who gets in his way. Hicks escapes with Marge, but this sets in motion a long chase leading from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Converse returns to the U.S. and gets captured by the DEA agent, who tortures the would-be drug mogul and uses him for bait to lure Hicks (and Marge) from hiding. All of this culminates with a wild shootout at Hicks’ hippie hideaway in the Southern California desert.
Listing all the ways this story doesn’t work cinematically would take a while—for instance, Converse departs the narrative for long stretches, and the quasi-romance between Hicks and Marge feels both contrived and needlessly downbeat. But none of these problems diminish the texture of Who’ll Stop the Rain. The movie’s acting is amazing, with Nolte at his animalistic best, Weld capturing a queasy sort of bewilderment, and Moriarty sweating his way through a vivid turn as a pathetic striver. Zerbe is memorably insidious, while the actors playing his low-rent henchmen—Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey—add surprising elements of humor and terror. Director Karel Reisz, always stronger with atmosphere and character than with story, generates tremendous realism even in the most outrageous scenes (e.g., the final shootout), and his filmmaking soars at periodic intervals. Ultimately, the power of Who’ll Stop the Rain stems from the cumulative mood of despair that the filmmakers generate—if nothing else, Who’ll Stop the Rain captures something profound about how it felt to sort through the mess of Vietnam while history was still unfolding.
Who’ll Stop the Rain: GROOVY