First-time writer-director John Patrick Kelley’s “The Locusts” is something of an anomaly in its nostalgic kinship with the tragic rural melodramas of the 1950s, simmering with themes of guilt, responsibility, sexual power and desire. While this good-looking production lacks narrative economy and tends toward literary heavy-handedness, it nonetheless reps an entertaining debut driven by strongly drawn characters. A commercial long shot given its throwback feel, pic may receive a nudge from the compelling turns of rising stars Jeremy Davies and Vince Vaughn.
Set in 1960 in small-town Kansas, the story kicks off with the arrival of drifter Clay Hewitt (Vaughn), who is fleeing from some dark secrets. A friendly farmhand (Paul Rudd) helps him find work on a feed lot owned by smoldering, bourbon-swilling widow Delilah Ashford Potts (Kate Capshaw), who is said to eat studs like him for breakfast. More like her servant than her child, the widow’s emotionally crippled, painfully shy son, Flyboy (Davies), skulks around the house trying to avoid attention.
Prompted by his own psychological scars, Clay befriends the boy and begins to coax him out of his shell, encouraging him to come along on dates with sexy local girl Kitty (Ashley Judd). But Delilah disapproves of Clay’s efforts to make a man of her son. Despite regular servicing from ranch hand Joel (Daniel Meyer), her sexual hankering for Clay, and his reluctance to comply with her demands, soon cause trouble.
Sparks fly as Delilah sees her reign threatened and enlists help from Joel to terrorize the suddenly spirited Flyboy back into submission. Some wildly overstated symbolism is brought into play when she has him hog-tied in the mud to watch as she castrates the prize bull he cherishes. But Clay’s strong will eventually proves too much for Delilah. In a climax of multiplying tragedies, he forces her to face the ramifications of a sordid past almost straight out of “Chinatown,” full of family secrets, abuse and incest.
Characters such as the emasculating, predatory widow, the cowering man-child and the sensitive, soulful beefcake clearly are styled on those created by writers like William Inge and Tennessee Williams, and require more than able players to put them across believably. Davies and Vaughn fit the bill, the former inching desperately from aching withdrawal to fleeting, incipiently joyful release, and the latter easily transmitting warmth and trust.
The weak link, however, is Capshaw. Given an unenviable task in bringing to life such an impossibly melodramatic figure, she never summons the necessary intensity or malice. Judd registers sympathetically as a small-town girl anxious to get into trouble.
Kelley’s direction is confident, though could have benefited from a tighter grip as the story’s dark strands begin unraveling; the film’s substantial overlength makes itself felt in the closing half. Sharp widescreen lensing by Phedon Papamichael makes use of sepia and pastel tones, and a peppering of tunes of the day also contributes to a solid feel for time and place.