Acantankerous oldster learns that his estranged brother has suffered a massive stroke; having had his driver’s license revoked, he hops aboard a lawnmower and travels over 100 miles to see him. Sound familiar? Writer-director Joe Camp III’s polished debut feature recounts a similar journey of reconciliation to David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” but from a different perspective and with a different outcome. While pic appears too deliberately paced and dramatically restrained for theatrical pickup, “Abilene” should make a prestige entry for cable, where its themes will connect especially with older viewers.
Screened as the surprise film of the San Sebastian festival, the drama earns instant curiosity status thanks to its kinship with the Lynch feature, which Disney picked up prior to its Cannes competition bow earlier this year. But while “The Straight Story” chronicled true-life events, concentrating on the trip itself more than on the peacemaking fraternal reunion at its conclusion, “Abilene” merely uses the unusual journey as the starting point for a less exceptional fictional story of forgiveness, redemption, lost love and correcting past mistakes.
Elderly war hero Hotis Brown (Ernest Borgnine) gets a call from his sister-in-law Emmeline (Kim Hunter) relaying the bad news about his brother Jarvis (Alan North), to whom he hasn’t spoken in 50 years. Refusing to accept a lift from concerned local sheriff Bernie (James Morrison) and arrive like an invalid with a police escort, Hotis trades in his tractor for a riding mower and trailer and sets off across the empty expanses of West Texas with his equally long-in-the-tooth dog. Despite his resistance, Bernie brings Hotis meals and checks in on him periodically during the drive.
“Abilene” shares with Lynch’s film its deep feeling for the vast landscapes — handsomely captured in Rob Sweeney’s evocative widescreen lensing — and simple, honest characters of rural America. But it gives considerably less attention to the old man’s long journey. Focus instead rests more squarely on Emmeline, as she dutifully mans her post by the deathbed of her comatose husband — an unpopular, ill-natured man who will be mourned by no one — while her neighbors inundate the house with gifts of pies.
Meanwhile, along the road, Hotis gradually lowers the wall that separates him from other people, and begins slowly to accept Bernie’s friendship. His confessions about painful experiences help the sheriff see the life of solitude laid out ahead of him and prompt him to act upon his unspoken love for local diner owner Betty (Park Overall).
The unexpected closeness between the two men also helps Hotis deal with the old wounds that have been reopened by the journey, giving him the chance to reclaim the happiness that eluded him years earlier.
Touching in isolated moments but without the sustained emotion or depth of character that perhaps it needs, the drama comes into its own in a moving final act that focuses more firmly on Hotis and Emmeline.
Prior to the conclusion, however, the narrative seems overly cluttered by peripheral stories involving the sheriff and Betty, and a new preacher (Wendell Pierce) struggling to find his place in Emmeline’s community.
While the intention of writer-director Camp (a former assistant to the Coen brothers and Stephen Frears, among others) clearly is to create a small universe of individuals whose destinies are blocked and emotional lives suffocated by their inability to communicate, the numerous characters dilute the poignancy of what is essentially a two-character piece about people discovering that the wrong choices of a lifetime ago can still be made right.
Borgnine takes time to settle into his character, possibly due to the script’s tardiness in getting Hotis on the road and kickstarting the story’s momentum. But after an awkward start, he eventually establishes a warm balance of pride, humor, crabby stubbornness and sorrow. Hunter’s is a quieter, more affecting performance, bringing dignity and a sad sense of resignation to the role of a woman who has wasted her life on an undeserving man. Supporting cast is fine.