Title: The Rain People
Director/Writer: Francis Ford Coppola
Music: Ronald Stein
Cinematography: Bill Butler
On the road, driving aimless westward, New York housewife Natalie Ravenna (Knight) finds out her unexpected pregnancy and needs some alone time, so she leaves her asleep husband a note and a breakfast, then starts her peregrination all by herself.
Coppola’s fourth feature and he was 29 when the movie is shot, THE RAIN PEOPLE is an unsung gem prior to THE GODFATHER (1972), using extreme close-ups, mood-reflecting camerawork, Coppola retains a sober and intuitive acumen to guide Natalie on a liberation trip where she battles between her maternal instinct to a former college footballer Jimmy (Caan) and her flirtation with a macho highway patrolman Gordon (Duvall), to an end where an impending crime of passion arrives as a fatalist blow to a woman who is brave enough to go out on a limb, flout social conventions and abides by her true feelings, no matter how fickle they are.
Caan’s Jimmy, whose nickname Killer turns out to be rather ironic, first appears as an ingenuous hitchhiker, a suitable object for some uncomplicated dalliance, but in a tantalizing segment of playing Simon Says in the motel room, the libidinous foreplay of dominance and obedience hits a sudden swerve when Natalie realizes Killer is a simpleton suffering from brain damage during a match, and now is discharged from the college with a compensation of a thousand dollars. Since then, Killer becomes a sweet burden to her, his sweetheart refuses to take him in, he botches the job she finds for him, what can she do with him? She has her own issues to deal with, especially when Gordon comes into her life, she cannot hold the responsibility to take care of Killer anymore, his affection for her can never be reciprocal and the world is too cruel a place for him, he will be eaten alive. The upshot is a bit rash to plunge Killer to the locale of the trailer park, but it strikes home with an emotional upheaval mirrors our own lament of the departed innocence and a pure soul.
The cast is extraordinary, two-times Oscar nominee Shirley Knight imprints an indelible mark with her pyrotechnic rendering and James Caan is never so unassumingly moving, whereas Robert Duvall is virile and menacing, yet, Gordon’s own tale-of-woe implies the duplicity of his character, a worldly-wise kind but fatally flawed.
In the form of a frivolous road movie, THE RAIN PEOPLE is an in-depth examination of a woman balking at a life-altering moment, how she has to come to term with the responsibility of bringing up a new life in this world (will she keep the baby? it is an open question, but the ending suggests yes), through her chance-meeting with a child-like Killer and also sharply chastises a morally downgrading society, male-chauvinistic, avaricious and wanting of sympathy. It is a wonderful movie which is criminally underestimated by its time but has no difficulty to pick up new audience, not just as a footnote of Coppola’s universally hallowed THE GODFATHER and its sequel.