Friday, March 9, 2018

My Old Man’s Place (1971)

          Possibly the first American theatrical feature to explore the impact of PTSD on vets returning from Vietnam, problematic drama/thriller My Old Man’s Place has a plot similar to that of The Visitors, a vastly superior picture released the following year. Both films dramatize the issue of soldiers bringing the war home with them by depicting close-quarters tension in remote areas. Yet while the Eliza Kazan-directed The Visitors has meticulous character work and a propulsive storyline, My Old Man’s Place is dubious and episodic. The personalities in this movie range from nonsensical to shallow to trite, and the narrative proceeds haphazardly—one gets the impression of filmmakers perpetually reaching for but not quite grasping heavy symbolism. Nonetheless, My Old Man’s Place is watchable thanks to its attempt at cultural relevance, and thanks to a couple of fine performances.
          At the beginning of the picture, three soldiers return to California from Southeast Asia. Trubee (Michael Moriarty, in his film debut) and Jimmy (William Devane) are combat buddies glad to be done with their military service, but Sgt. Martin Flood (Mitchell Ryan) thinks he might sign up for another tour of duty after a 30-day leave. Thoughtful Trubee and animalistic Jimmy spend time in San Francisco chasing women, then encounter Martin beating up a cross-dressing hustler. Presumably out of respect for a fellow veteran, Trubee and Jimmy offer Martin refuge on a farm owned by Trubee’s father, WWII vet Walter (Arthur Kennedy). The minute the group arrives at Walter’s farm, things turn sour. Walter has no use for Jimmy, a vulgar idiot, and doesn’t immediately notice that Martin is a tightly wound sadist. The situation worsens once Jimmy brings college student Helen (Topo Swope) to the farm. It’s giving nothing away to say the whole situation moves inexorably toward tragedy.
          Beyond the basic premise of war having different effects on different men, not much in My Old Man’s Place makes sense. It’s hard to imagine Trubee and Jimmy becoming friends, the idea they would glom onto the frightening Martin is bizarre, and Helen makes spectacularly stupid decisions. Thus it’s pointless trying to watch My Old Man’s Place as a proper story. Better to absorb the picture as a clumsy effort to engage with something provocative. To that end, Moriarty’s casting is just right, since he effectively captures anguish. Casting Kennedy, a star from a simpler time in movies, works just as well, because his presence illustrates the generation gap. Ryan is good, too, infusing his restrained characterization with unnerving madness. The performer who misses the mark most widely is the usually reliable Devane, because he’s distractingly cartoonish playing a crass simpleton.

My Old Man’s Place: FUNKY

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