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Terror in Sugar Dumpling Town
by Lucius Shepard
October 16, 2001

For those of us who did not have an especially happy childhood, Stephen King's habitual depiction of children as magical creatures (a trope he shares with another mega-Steven—Spielberg) whose innocence and courage are capable of overcoming supernatural monsters and dysfunctional parents alike has grown more than a little tiresome. If we are to believe King, should Planet Earth suffer an alien invasion or a plague of demons, all we need do is muster a group of pure-in-heart pre-pubescent buddies and turn them loose on the bogeymen, who will surely be daunted, quelled, and shamed into non-being by the clear flame of bravery displayed by these diminutive heroes. King might do well to acquaint himself with the horrific fates of children who are faced with serious threats—the odds are his analysis would conclude that when children are confronted with mortal danger, for the most part they die. Still and all, it is a pleasant-enough fantasy to indulge in, and the latest film based on King's work, Hearts In Atlantis, is superior to many previous such cinematic translations. This is not to say that it is worth watching, but it is not entirely without virtue.

Cheap sentiment is yet another trope embraced by the two Stevens who bestride the world of popular culture, and Hearts is awash with teary moments cued by maudlin strings that encourage us to let down our cynical shields and surrender to the sweetness of the �ber-nostalgia conjured up by the film. The story is framed by the return of Robert Garfield (David Morse) to his hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood pal, Sully. There he learns that another friend of his youth, his first love, Carol Gerber (Mika Boorem) has also died, and this causes him to immerse himself in the hour-and-a-half-long flashback to the early1960s that forms the bulk of the movie. The younger Garfield, known as Bobby (Anton Yelchin), is essentially an orphan, his father having died and his mother Elizabeth (Hope Davis) having chosen to cope with the death by more or less abandoning her child and turning her attention to the pursuit of a career in real estate, a course that inspires her to such cruelties as spending money on a career-assisting wardrobe that might have bought her son his long-coveted bike. Into this less-than-joyous circumstance comes a boarder, Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) who is fleeing from people he refers to as "low men." This term, it turns out, refers to the FBI. Brautigan is a psychic whose ability allows to him to know everything about whomever he touches—he has been recruited or shanghaied (it is not made clear which) by J. Edgar Hoover to help fight the war on Communism, and he has managed to escape his evil masters and lives his life on the run throughout America. He enlists Bobby to read the paper to him and keep on the lookout for the "low men," thus becoming a father figure to the child and arousing both Elizabeth's suspicion and jealousy. He befriends Bobby's friends, in particular Carol, and saves them from the local bully by threatening to reveal that the bully, prone to using terms like "faggot" and "queer," is himself a closet homosexual. On occasion he lapses into fugues during which he senses from afar the imminent arrival of his pursuers. Unfortunately, these fugues are scarcely distinguishable from the remainder of Sir Anthony's somnolent performance. Once a fine actor, he has for several years been mailing in performances that more kindly critics than I have described as "understated," relying on his voice and presence alone. Perhaps these efforts have been commensurate with the quality of the projects he has chosen to grace. But they are projects that, for whatever reason, he has chosen, and as I watched him emote, his patrician features gone vague in a bout of far-seeing, I had the notion that he was not tracking the movements of FBI ferrets but was rather reciting a mantra in which the words "Where's my check?" figured prominently. The one noteworthy performance in Hearts is that of Hope Davis. She succeeds in creating a sharply etched portrait of a woman who, in walling herself off from grief and the world of trouble that has resulted from her husband's death, has also walled herself off from everything that might sustain her. Otherwise, the children are suitably appealing, David Morse is suitably grizzled and soulful, etc. etc. . . .

The virtue I described Hearts as not being entirely devoid of is chiefly due to the work of William Goldman. Somehow Goldman, an excellent writer in several forms, has managed to cobble two sections of King's meandering ten-hanky salute to the Sixties into a fairly engaging script. There are a few off-key passages—a scene in which Brautigan speaks elegiacally to Bobby of Hall-of-Fame NFL fullback Bronco Nagurski ("The old man kept crawling . . . he scored for us!") contains enough unrefined sugar to cause a kindergarten class to run amok. But overall, Goldman has crafted these weepy materials with far more cleverness than they perhaps deserve, and had the picture adhered more closely to the dark suggestions of the script, Hearts might have given the world something more than yet another reason for Roger Ebert to shake like a bowlful of jelly and chortle "I loved this movie!" to his neutered elf of a co-conspirator in bad taste, What's-his-name.

But then Goldman likely had not reckoned on Scott Hicks, a director apparently in the thrall of the two Stevens. In his hands, the seedy little New England town that serves as the setting for the story becomes a kingdom of childhood possibility, full of quaint desirable objects and secret hideaways and sinister adults, where every shaft of sun creates a mystical dazzle and the music of American innocence—mid-Fifties rock n' roll—plays non-stop on all the radios, as if in those days oldies stations existed. Which, of course, they did not. Like his mentors, Hicks attempts to wring a maximum of tears from a minimum of earned emotionality, and he is, to a great degree, successful in this. As I sat in the darkened theater, scribbling on my notepad, writing down words such as "crap" and "hogwash" and "Gaah!", the druggy mixture of sad-eyed kiddies and treacly post-Mantovani symphonic goop and Sir Anthony's mossy, slumbering presence triggered a chemical reaction that, indeed, brought tears to my eyes, and there were moments when, despite my profound disinterest in most of the characters, I set aside my fantasy that the film would degenerate into a horrific surrealism and I would see Sir Anthony dismembered mid-fugue by a rogue elephant, while Bobby, demented by loneliness, ran wild through that little sugar dumpling of a town, slaughtering his enemies with Carol Gerber's bloody shinbone, and instead, possessed by a sort of repulsively generic nostalgia for all those things we have lost, those shining moments from which we failed to snatch a proper measure of joy, or, alack! from which we snatched too much, and now gleam dully like fireflies stored away in a bottle, their dying energies making a dim and woeful light . . . Instead, I found myself hoping that Bobby would someday get his longed-for Schwinn Black Phantom and ride ride ride through days golden and many (as is implied he shall at movie's end) until, of course, he collides with the grinning tooth-covered bus of circumstance and is rendered into kibble-sized bits.

Blame for what is wrong with Hearts in Atlantis must ultimately be laid at the feet of Stephen King. For many years King has been far more a sentimentalist than a horror writer; and now, in a time when real horror has been visited upon us in all its gruesome anonymity and grindstone banality, his giant spiders and freakish clowns and wicked man-shaped devils are more comforting than frightening—they seem assurances (false ones) that evil comes wrapped in an otherworldly gloss that will make it readily distinguishable and therefore avoidable. His once-fresh technique of Americanizing the horror novel by a kind of overwrought product placement, laying in incessant references to McDonald's and popular kitchen cleaners and sinus cures and et al, has these days a period feel similar to that you might obtain from coming across a futuristic science fiction story set in 1985. Reading a King novel has become an act of self-consolation, like eating ice cream when depressed. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Whether we have a jones for S'mores or reruns of Gilligan's Island, we need our comforts, and King's lapse into dreary sentimentality doubtless synchs with some similar national lapse, a consensus desire to be told a spooky fairy tale that will make the bad man who lives inside all our heads go away. But the fact remains that King's fictions have devolved from pulpy monuments into bland palliatives, and this perhaps speaks to a creative dotage, conjuring an image of the author sitting alone in his gloomy study, fondling a rusty metal top and muttering the word "Rats" or somesuch, and smiling foolishly. I say this as someone who has enjoyed several of King's books, but lately I have all but given up hope for a return to the form displayed in The Shining and Christine, in both of which he countered sentiment with considerable menace and interesting sociological observance.

Of all the ghastly sugars yielded by Hearts In Atlantis, the most unpalatable is the ending in which Elizabeth Garfield, motivated now wholly by jealousy, turns in Brautigan to the FBI, and is almost immediately forgiven by her son, despite the fact that Brautigan has become his father, his mentor, his great friend. This led me to a new and divergent consideration of Bobby's character. Could his relative lack of anguish over Brautigan's fate be attributed to some pathology? I realized that it was possible to view Bobby as a sociopath, that through a scene-by-scene analysis, a case could be made for his having manipulated the entire scenario so as to acquire the money for his bike (he winds up with money that Brautigan has made by means of a sporting wager to fund an escape), and that now, once again the object of his mother's love, his transportation problem solved, and that smelly old dude upstairs out of the way, he sits in his room as satisfied as a spider with a fresh-caught fly. This interpretation adds a gloating air to the final frames in which a smiling Bobby Schwinn's off into an eternal childhood autumn. I suppose, however, it is unlikely that Scott Hicks is sufficiently clever or subversive a manipulator to have intended this, and that this subtle portrait of a child monster was only accidentally achieved.

If you are in the mood for a film about childhood (among other things) and the remarkable resilience of children that earns its emotionality, I recommend that you rent the outstanding Brazilian film Central Station. If, on the other hand, you're a little blue and want to feel good about feeling bad, then I imagine you could do worse than Hearts in Atlantis. As a makeshift anti-depressant, it is, I should think, every bit the equal of a dozen Oreos or a pint of Rocky Road.