Stepping behind the camera for his first outing as director, actor Arliss Howard has fashioned a flawed and overlong but ultimately affecting account of one man’s struggle to regain control of his life in “Big Bad Love.” Adapted from the short stories of Mississippi writer Larry Brown, this feverish chronicle of a journey through self-hatred and grief displays striking visual instincts and a strongly developed directorial sense, but is compromised by self-indulgence and insufficient character backgrounding. When it gets where it’s going, however, the drama achieves an unanticipated power. This could be significantly amplified with further cuts, perhaps facilitating some minor theatrical play before wider exposure on cable.
The film invites comparison in many ways to fellow actor-director Ed Harris’ “Pollock,” not only in Howard’s pained, highly physical performance but in the main character’s difficulty in reconciling his creative impulses with his self-destructive ones. And like “Pollock,” Howard’s script (co-written with his brother James Howard) provides only minimal insight into the causes of the man’s messed-up state, rectifying this only in the concluding stretch.
Howard plays Leon Barlow, a hard-drinking Vietnam vet who lives alone in the Mississippi sticks following a split from his bitter wife Marilyn (the director’s offscreen spouse and producer Debra Winger), who retained custody of their preteen son (Zach Moody) and sickly infant daughter (Olivia Kersey), suffering from an incurable respiratory illness. Dismissed by Marilyn as a drunken deadbeat, Leon spends his time boozing, hunched over his typewriter churning out gritty prose or papering his bathroom with the rejection letters that accompany his returned manuscripts.
Aside from one letter offering encouragement, the sole appreciative audience for Leon’s writing is his war buddy Monroe (Paul Le Mat). Enlisting his help in a housepainting job, Monroe clears Leon’s slate of alimony and child support payments, allowing him to spend a weekend with his kids. But the lack of faith in him shown both by Marilyn and by his despondent mother (Angie Dickinson) contributes to sap his discipline and self-esteem even more.
As Leon starts hitting the bottle more relentlessly, often in the company of Monroe, director Howard overburdens the film with mannered stylistic flourishes, slipping into dreams, memory and fictional digressions that draw upon Leon’s past. The audacious mix of rustic dirt realism with a more rarefied literary strain gives the film an original, not uninteresting feel. But the dialogue at times is overwritten, and the coverage of Leon’s intensive drinking binges and frustrated creative efforts becomes repetitive, providing an extended performance showcase when more concise description would have sufficed.
An initial turning point comes when Leon and Monroe are injured in a drunken car accident. But the real jolt that stuns Leon out of freefall and opens his eyes is the sudden death of his daughter. When Marilyn refuses to share her pain with him, Leon’s loss and confusion push him further out into the cold, resulting in his arrest for being drunk and disorderly. But during dry time spent alone in prison and doing community service Leon’s grief has a sobering influence, segueing to a beautifully handled, optimistic final chapter.
While dialogue often is difficult to catch due to the slurred, drawling delivery and music-laden soundtrack, both Howard and Le Mat deliver sadly sympathetic characterizations of damaged men trying in different ways to restore balance in their off-kilter lives. Women characters, including Rosanna Arquette as Monroe’s sweetheart, generally are less satisfyingly drawn. But Winger takes on richer dimensions in the final stretch, conveying Marilyn’s devastation and exhaustion; and Dickinson has her moments as the faded beauty for whom her son’s troubles represent a painful reminder of the loss of her husband.
Paul Ryan’s graceful widescreen lensing, bold use of color and unconventional framing, homing in on odd but telling details, give the indie production an accomplished look. Jay Rabinowitz’s fluid editing also impresses, and bluesy vocals by Tom Waits enhance the melancholy mood.