A brooding slice of Midwestern Gothic bubbling over with passion, sex, betrayal, family secrets, Oedipal desire, murder and retribution, “Rain” is a more controlled brew than its overblown ingredients would suggest. But avoiding cliche entirely is all but impossible in this kind of mythic tragedy. More than that, however, the dark tale’s effectiveness is undermined by an unsatisfyingly drawn central character who remains opaque throughout the action and whose final-act sacrifice only serves to further alienate her from audiences. Despite the weaknesses of her script, debuting director Katherine Lindberg creates a strong sense of place and of lonely existences scarred by longing in this atmospheric drama, which looks headed mainly for small screen dates.
A recipient of the Martin Scorsese Young Filmmaker Fellowship Award and an intern on the set of Scorsese’s “Kundun,” Lindberg extended “Rain” from her previous short film “La Desconocida.” Scorsese also exec produced here, continuing his mentorship during script development.
In perhaps her first significant role since breaking through in “Magnolia” (aside from John McNaughton’s long-finished but still-unseen “Speaking of Sex”), Melora Walters plays Ellen Biddle, an unhappy young housewife in a backroads Iowa farm town where the ongoing drought, the troubled agricultural industry and the constant threat of foreclosure mirror the inhabitants’ unstable emotional states. Greeting her philandering husband in a nervous trance as he returns from an early morning tryst with his lover Patsy (Jo Anderson), Ellen takes aim with a shotgun and spray-paints her kitchen with his insides.
Ellen disposes of the body and attempts to go on with her life. But the appearance back in town after a 16-year absence of Sheriff Tom Gibson (Jamey Sheridan) unnerves both Ellen, with whom he had an affair years earlier, and her mother (Diane Ladd), who attempts to keep him away from her daughter.
Tom has his own anxieties as his marriage to Patsy slowly falls apart and his teenage son Richard (Kris Park) becomes uncontrollable, jeopardizing his campaign for mayor.
In all her characters, particularly the women, Lindberg has drawn a tangible sense of the burdens of the past, the emptiness and damage caused by loss and loneliness. Even the town’s adolescents seem sadly resigned to the stagnancy of their lives. But while Walters’ vulnerable, pained performance is physically effective, there’s not enough insight provided to make Ellen accessible or to justify the unhinged woman’s actions. This is especially so after her mother reveals a hidden secret concerning Richard, prompting a fiery conclusion that feels too morally off-kilter to function as a redemptive act.
But while the film could be more satisfying in narrative terms, Lindberg’s direction is polished, coaxing measured performances from the cast and displaying an assured visual sense. Some of her stylistic touches are a little self-conscious, such as the overuse of ghostly trains speeding through. But lenser Vanja Cernjul ably captures the solitude and stillness of the place, its faded buildings and parched cornfields, while Clint Mansell’s subdued, gently moody score adds a dreamy quality to the plaintive tale.