“Amores Perros” for the Norman Rockwell set, ex-sitcom producer Matt Williams’ sophomore outing (after “Where the Heart Is”) “Walker Payne” unfolds in a carefully reconstructed pocket in depressed rural Illinois, circa 1957. Out of work and out of options, skirt-chasing, working-class must choose between his faithful dog Brute and his two little girls. Despite a strong name cast, including Sam Shepard as a Mephistophelean gamblin’ man and Drea de Matteo in a dynamo perf as Walker’s bitter half, downbeat allegory looks to be a hard sell: Tossing a lovable pet into graphic, to-the-death dogfights rarely spells boffo B.O.
Walker and half the town are laid off when the local pit mine closes. Employment opportunities are scarcer than hen’s teeth, particularly for a parolee who cannot leave the state. To compound matters, Walker’s estranged wife (de Matteo) is holding his kids hostage for the $5,000 she needs to leave town and enroll in nursing school.
Enter temptation in the person of Syrus (Shepard), who lures a reluctant Walker into the illicit backwoods world of dogfighting. If Patric is something less than a natural when cast as a lighthearted charmer, he indisputably owns the better-trodden territory of conflicted hero.
Walker falls for Audrey (an elegant KaDee Strickland), the new, classy city girl in town. Audrey, herself a battered wife, weighs in on the side of the angels, as does Chester (Bruce Dern), a gruff, kindly savior of strays, who stands in opposition to Syrus’s demonic father-figure (Shepard’s a cappella rendition of “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow” in a deserted ball park would do Robert Mitchum’s “Night of the Hunter” preacher proud).
Pic pegs the small town as an enclave of goodness in an oh-so-troubled world, so that all evil is perceived as coming from the outside, including the dog fights that occur out of town and out of state.
The dogfighting scenes are long and brutal, fragmented and action-blurred so as to elide any graphically detailed throat-ripping but effectively sound-engineered to suggest serious conflict, and with more than enough fake splattered blood around to fully convey the violence.
While the nearby contests bring out hordes of red-faced, money-waving hillbilly yahoos, the championship bout attracts a more all-American demographic, with whole families out to enjoy the canine fun.
One need only compare the morally weighted dogfights in “Payne” to the ethnographic, wholly indigenous fowl encounters in cult director Monte Hellman’s “Cockfighter” to see the utter artificiality of Williams’ approach.
Indeed, from the earliest scenes in the mine quarry, every element in the frame seems part of a self-consciously coordinated set design, down to the streaks of coal on our hero’s face. Each locale carries Meaning, each vehicle billboards Period, each costume broadcasts relative degrees of propriety and class. Lacking the sweep of myth, “Payne” falls back on cautionary gentility.