Soon after collaborating on the intimate Civil War drama No Drums, No Bugles (1972), actor Martin Sheen and writer-director Clyde Ware reteamed for this offbeat modern-day piece, which is primarily a drama but also has elements of whimsical comedy. In addition to sharing some of the same storytelling problems that plagued the previous Sheen/Ware collaboration, When the Line Goes Through suffers from bizarre narrative elements, a hideous musical score, and tonal dissonance. It’s far less satisfying as a viewing experience than No Drums, No Bugles—and the preceding film was not fantastic. Nonetheless, certain qualities slightly redeem When the Line Goes Through. First, West Virginia native Ware brings authenticity to his explorations of Southern identity, so the honesty of his writing ameliorates his lack of skill. Second, a recurring device of ironic cutaways, wherein visuals reveal the truth behind a character’s verbal lies, adds dimension. Third, Sheen is always a pleasure to watch, no matter the circumstances.
The movie opens by establishing Bluff Jackson (Sheen) as a drifter making his way from the Southwest to the backwoods of West Virginia, where he stumbles onto a remote house occupied by three people. Twentysomething sisters Mayme (Davey Davison) and Rayme (Beverly Washburn) care for their aging great-grandfather (Jim Boles), whom they claim is a 130-year-old Civil War veteran who fought on both sides of that conflict. Bluff spends several days at the house, romancing both sisters while spinning tale tales about his past to impress the sheltered women, who have never explored the world beyond their property. (Never mind the question of where they get groceries.)
Although Ware never seems quite sure what he’s after—beyond the basic notion of putting a worldly swindler together with impressionable rubes—watching the filmmaker struggle to find a storyline is not completely uninteresting. He comes up with a few effective devices, such as having the sisters wear identical dresses so Bluff has difficulty telling them apart, and the sexual heat between Bluff and the sisters adds tension. It helps that the movie is very short, running about 77 minutes. That said, When the Line Goes Through is not for everyone—in fact, most viewers are likely to find the movie confusing and dull and frustrating. (Again: that awful, awful music.) Yet if nothing else, When the Line Goes Through is that rare beast, a truly handmade cinematic relic, almost outsider art. Viewed unfavorably, it’s a botched attempt at something profound. Viewed generously, it’s a strange little exercise in personal expression.
When the Line Goes Through: FUNKY