Southern Movie 25: “Shy People”
In his review of the 1987 film Shy People, film critic Roger Ebert described it as both “one of the great visionary films of recent years” and “one of the great, lost films of recent years.” Written and directed by “Russian emigre” Andrei Konchalovsky, Shy People tells the story of a mother and daughter from New York City who travel to the bayous of Louisiana to learn about relatives who are the descendants of a renegade uncle. Ebert also explained in his review that the “world of Shy People is the world of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, or Faulkner’s Snopes family, of Al Capp and Russ Meyer.” (Wait— of Russ Meyer? What kind of movie is this!?)
Shy People opens in gloomy, gray New York City. We first meet Diana (Jill Clayburgh), a middle-aged writer for Cosmopolitan, who is packing to go on a trip. However, she changes her mind and leaves her apartment, heading for her teenage daughter’s school, but finds that the girl gets into a Porsche with a man. That plot line gets dropped pretty quickly though, and when the girl, Grace (Martha Plimpton), returns home, Diana invites her to go along on the trip to locate estranged relatives for an article she is writing. Grace nonchalantly agrees, and the stylish pair are off.
Next we see them, Grace is watching an older black man play a steel-body Dobro on a pier outside a small store whose sign declares it to be “Happy Landings.” Grace flirts with her eyes a little before Diana tromps into the fray demanding a boat to go out and see the Sullivans, her kin. The black man and a nasty-looking white man nearby both balk as they half-explain that it isn’t going to happen, then a sweaty local law man swaggers out and himself half-explains what we have already surmised: the Sullivan family is way back in the swamp, and they are bad news. But Diana has come to see them, and see them she will.
The tension grows as the cajun law man carries the two naive women deep into the swamp, then hands them off to an even nastier-looking white man named Henry, who will carry them the rest of the way. During the long ride, Diana says out loud that she wishes they knew she was coming. Henry replies that they do know, admonishing the two New Yorkers: you may not see them, but they’ve already seen you.
When Henry and his passengers arrive at the ramshackle two-story home, they get a chilly reception from Ruth (Barbara Hershey), who along with a younger woman is doing laundry with a hand-crank machine. Another young man flits around, fleeing and grinning, as Ruth accuses them of being from the IRS. But a picture of Uncle Joe resolves the matter, and they sit on the tall front steps, where Ruth explains that she was Joe’s second wife, taken by the old man when she was 12. The young man (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is their retarded son Paul, and the pregnant young woman (Mare Winningham) is the wife of another son— but not of the son who they hear screaming wildly from the nearby tool shed. Confused about the imprisoned young man, Grace asks, “Why don’t you help him get out?” to which Ruth replies, “I put him there. Why would I help him get out?”
Once inside, Grace makes the grievous error of sitting in dead Uncle Joe’s chair and is scolded with all seriousness for the error. During a meal in the shabby kitchen, the guests are shown a two-headed baby turtle, which Ruth says never happened before the oil companies came, then Ruth’s oldest son Mark arrives, the husband of the pregnant girl, whose name is Candy. Mark (Don Swayze) is fiercely angry that poachers have stolen his traps full of crabs and crawfish. Diana and Grace apprise them that, on the way, they ran across a man with a boat full of those things; his name was Jake. The mother and son know who he is, and Ruth advises him to do what his father would have done about it.
As the city mice settle in with their country cousins, the chasm between their ways and outlooks becomes immediately apparent, as does the creepy undercurrent of this family’s history. While looking through a scrapbook, Diana spots a young man whose face is every time scratched-out. She asks about him, and Ruth tells her that he’s dead— at least, dead to her: he is a sinner who went to the city. Diana opposes Ruth’s hard-line stance but is told defiantly that that’s the way it is. Next, the two mothers take a ride in a small boat to the spot where Joe Sullivan was last seen, an isolated part of the bayou where he retreated after killing a man whose wife called the law. However, Joe used to emerge every Sunday to meet his wife for a visit— until one Sunday when he didn’t. Ruth continued waiting for him every Sunday for year but he never came again. Diana then comments to Ruth condescendingly, “Funny, you have a live son you think of as dead, and a dead husband you think of as alive.”
Back on dry land, we get glimpses of the son who is locked in the tool shed during a scene when Grace shares her Walkman with her other cousins who have never seen one before. As they pass around the new device, Grace oversteps her bounds, calling their mother a “bitch” and scolding them for being scared of their dead father. After these interchanges, between the mothers and then among their children, we can sense that there will be problems.
The tension in Shy People is exacerbated by Grace’s rebellious and promiscuous behavior. Diana confronts her over the man in the Porsche, a forty-year-old named Andre who dated Diana first, then Grace goes over and frees Tommy, the brother locked in the shed. The teenagers sprint through the woods until the find a low-hanging branch to perch on, smoke, and make eyes at each other, until Tommy asks her to lock him back up so his mother won’t get mad.
As the movie’s multifaceted story progresses, oldest son Mark tries to go out and find the person who has been stealing his traps, but he gets knocked in the head in the dense fog. Meanwhile, his pregnant wife Candy is itching to get off the bayou homestead and into the town, the oil rigs, anywhere that electricity and radio and TV, but Ruth berates and intimidates her, proclaiming that she will never allow her son and grandson to be taken from their family home. However, Ruth does soften somewhat by allowing Diana to consult the local sheriff about Mark’s attacker and by conceding to Candy’s desire to deliver the baby in a modern hospital. But while they are away, Grace gallivants around her two cousins, first half-heartedly seducing the wounded Mark then climbing between the bars into Tommy’s shed prison, where she learns the name of that other “dead” brother: Michael.
Then we get to meet Michael. While Candy and Diana are shopping for a battery-powered TV, Diana asks vaguely where Ruth has gone. “Probably to kill Jake,” Candy replies nonchalantly. We then see Ruth stomp into a shabby local strip joint, where she stares slack-jawed at the stripper for a moment before inquiring where to find Jake Wilson, who has stolen her son’s traps and knocked him in the head. After shooting Jake point-blank in the hand, Ruth proceeds to smash all the liquor bottles while shouting Bible verses, until Diana then the cops then the sleazy owner come to contend with the commotion. As the officers overtake Ruth, the club owner shouts, “That’s my mother, you turn her loose.” Here is the sinner who moved to town.
Meanwhile, Grace has been in the boonies having sex with Tommy and sharing her cocaine with all three brothers. Now tweaking, Paul starts running around with a Confederate flag and lets out all of their goats. Mark starts monkeying around on a rope swing, falls into the water, then sprints upstairs to take his turn at Grace, who fights him off then jumps into one of the boats to escape. All the while Tommy is screaming from his cage, unable to intervene, as a flag-draped Paul watches the whole thing dumbfounded. Yet, though she escapes Mark, Grace is left floating in the swamps in a leaky boat as night begins to fall.
Shifting back to the other front, Diana, Ruth, and Candy are returning home from the town. With the battery-powered TV blasting a televangelist program, Diana attempts to engage Ruth with the specter of her lost husband and whether he was cruel to her. Ruth will not respond, and Diana is led to ask her the most important question in the story: why won’t you pack up your family and leave this place? But Ruth won’t even consider it.
The shit hits the fan when the three women return home. Tommy is screaming that Mark has raped Grace, Mark is screaming his denials, Diana frantically searches for her daughter, and Paul snivels among them, while Ruth attempts to discern what has happened. During the freak-out, Tommy is ranting about their dead father who is rotting in the swamp and will never come back, a charge refuted with vigor by the rest of his family, and Ruth charges Mark to “teach him some respect.” As Diana jumps in the family’s boat to search for her daughter, Mark beats Tommy nearly to death with a metal pipe.
Out on the swamp, Diana fares no better than Grace. Pushing the motor boat to full throttle, she is unable to navigate the stumps and gets thrown out as the boat speeds away, leaving her like her daughter: clinging to a stump in the fog. When the boat finally stops careening, Diana makes a break for it and reaches safety. After vomiting profusely, she realizes that someone else is there, too, and she comes face to face, it seems, with ghost of Joe Sullivan, a faceless man in a poncho and mosquito netting who quickly pushes off and disappears.
In the next scene, Diana does find Grace, and in the light of the day, presumably the next morning, Diana stands on the pier to leave. Ruth comes to her. It is time for truth-telling. Ruth explains, by the waterside, that Joe Sullivan was a cruel man who she hated, a man so brutal that he beat her even when we was pregnant, which is the reason that Paul is slow. Ruth says that Joe ran “hot and cold,” nothing in between, and she wants Diana to write that. No, she won’t write anything at all, Diana retorts.
Shy People ends with two separate family Come-to-Jesus scenes. On the airplane back to New York, Grace declares that she will move in with Andre when she gets back, but her mother retorts with a definite no. When she tries to run away to the bathroom to do some cocaine and pout, Diana bursts in and they have it out, to become mother and daughter again. Back in the swamps of Louisiana, Ruth and her family are having dinner when Michael walks in, gets a bowl of soup, and sits down to eat. An equally tense argument occurs, and Ruth answers her feuding boys once and for all: any of them are welcome to leave, she tells them, the ghosts are hers to contend with. The last thing we get is a black screen with a verse from the third chapter of Revelation, which explains Ruth’s references to “hot and cold.”
I agree with Roger Evert that Shy People is a Faulknerian story. With a layered mass of conflicts that encompass Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Self all at once, I was reminded of Faulkner’s “Old Man” from Wild Palms, a story in which a convict is assigned to rescue a pregnant woman during the Great Flood of 1927. The clash of cultures here is significant as Modernity meets Agrarian in a 1980s context, and that clash is not only the New York City Sullivans vs. the bayou Sullivans; it is also occurring among the bayou family as well, with Michael and Tommy wishing to leave the homestead and Candy wishing to modernize it.
Back in 1988, The New York Times review of the film had this to say,
Having established time and place, Mr. Konchalovsky couldn’t care less about plausibility. He is more interested in what the film is ”about,” no matter how awkwardly the story sits atop that subtext. Shy People is, first off, about a culture clash and value differences that are too obvious to be especially interesting to Americans.
In addition, the film is about the difference between people who are decisive and strong (the bayou Sullivans) and people who, like the civilized Diana and her daughter, are so indecisive they take stands on nothing whatsoever.
I also agree with that assessment generally. As a representation of Southern culture and people, Shy People portrays a bleak and individualistic segment of our society that is wildly different from the American mainstream. The family is self-reliant and well-acquainted with brutality; they have no radio, no TV, and even no electricity. (When Ruth agrees to allow Candy a TV, she has to ask, what will we plug it in to?) This is the eye-for-an-eye branch of the Southern family tree, the No Country for Old Men branch, the last remaining vestiges of a culture of people who truly lived off the land. The danger for moviegoers outside of the South would be assuming that all people in Louisiana were like the bayou Sullivans: dirty with rotten teeth, resistant and suspicious, bitter and violent and cruel. Though these folks do exist, that’s just not how it is for everyone— And if you don’t believe me, just watch a few episodes of slick, polished, media-friendly version: Duck Dynasty!