Payday takes no prisoners. Treating the excesses of one fictional country singer’s life as a symbol for the extremes of anyone who believes his or her own hype, this little-seen drama stars Rip Torn as Maury Dann, a monstrous megalomaniac who mows down everyone who stands between him and glory or self-destruction, whichever comes first. The irony that Dann succeeds in the folksy realm of country music is utilized for maximum effect, as are subtle parallels to real-life country singers whose substance-abuse issues were common knowledge. (The movie implies a tip of the Stetson to George Jones’s boozing, for instance, although Dann doesn’t come across like a direct stand-in for any particular individual.) Zooming out from the film’s perspective on country music specifically, the choice of music in general makes all sorts of sense, not only because popular entertainers get cut more slack for bad behavior than most mere mortals, but because the tension between fans and the lucky people whom fans elevate to star status is so rich. After all, the very people whom Dann treats so badly—the compliant groupies who buy his music, the underappreciated sidemen who make his shows happen, and so on—are the source of the power that he abuses.
On one level, Payday is a simple story about a man who damns himself by biting the hand that feeds, but on a deeper level, it’s about the fine line between ambition and avarice, because the same single-mindedness that fuels Dann’s more-is-more rampaging is, presumably, what pushed him through obstacles and rejections on the way to success.
Torn, whose real-life troubles prove he grasps the concept of personal demons all too well, gives one of the finest—and most frightening—performances of his career, his energy level keyed up to superhuman levels from the first frame to the last. He plays Dann as a sort of tornado whipping through bars, concert halls and studios, leaving bruised and confused victims in his wake. (The title refers to Dann’s ferocious pursuit of the bottom line, because he uses everyone he meets to further his own success, no matter what shape they’re in when he’s done.) Director Daryl Duke, whose career mostly comprises middling TV projects and one other fine ’70s movie (the twisty 1978 crime thriller The Silent Partner) films Payday unobtrusively, letting Torn chew through the pages of Don Carpenter’s unflinching script at a rapid pace. Plus, intentionally or not, the effect of Maury Dann living on a plane above everyone else is compounded by the use of a supporting cast featuring unfamiliar actors; it’s as if Torn’s characterization consumes so much oxygen that no other name-brand actor would be able to breathe in the same space.
That said, minor characters in Payday serve their functions well, conveying a believable vision of Nashville and the surrounding area as an industry town that’s as reliant on working stiffs as it is on visionaries. (The filmmakers also illustrate virtually every imaginable dimension of the lead character, showing his relationships with friends, foes, family and everyone in between.) Payday is a ’70s movie to its core, dark and probing and unglamorous, so while it cannot be described as a fun movie to watch, it’s a prime example of the type of nervy character study that give the boldest ’70s cinema its unique flavor.