Southern Movie 35: “Paris Trout” (1991)

It might seem odd on the surface that 1991’s Paris Trout is one of the more obscure and hard-to-find Southern movies. It is the film version of a novel that won the National Book Award, and has a stellar cast, with Dennis Hopper, Barbara Hershey, and Ed Harris in the lead roles. However, today, not only will you not see it on lists of great films, you’ll hardly be able to find it. A search for its title on Amazon Prime only yields French cooking programs; on Netflix, that search brings up nothing remotely related; and Roku’s search function blanks out— nothing. The answer to this obscurity must lie, at least partially, in its subject matter: Paris Trout is the story of a cruel, violent, and self-righteous Southern bigot who murders a child, sexually assaults his own wife, bribes his way out of prison, kills his invalid mother, kills his own lawyer, and ultimately commits suicide out of self-pity. To say that his story is disturbing is an understatement.

It is easy to tell that Paris Trout will be an odd film from its opening scene. An elderly woman’s naked, limp body is being washed in a dim room. (It’s hard to tell at first whether she is alive or dead.) Soon, our view of the scene widens, and we see an African-American nurse doing the washing. A man then steps into the side of the scene, and the nurse says that she’ll “be through with Miss Trout in a minute.” However, the man continues to stand there silently, which leads to the nurse to ask if he wants to brush the woman’s hair. Again, he doesn’t respond. Their interaction is cold and creepy.

Next, the scene shifts to an aerial view of a small Southern downtown as a woman’s voice narrates the background information that we need to know: in 1949, an outbreak of rabies occurred in the rural Georgia county where the story will take place. As the camera’s focus narrows onto a storefront, whose sign reads “Paris Trout,” then into the store itself, she continues to explain that no one seemed concerned about the disease, but since she had only been in the town for two years, she didn’t have a good understanding of the place— or of her husband. As she finishes the voice-over, we are watching Hanna Trout (Barbara Hershey) work in the general store.

Out the back door, her husband Paris Trout (Dennis Hopper) is finalizing the sale of a car to a young black man Henry Ray Sayers. Their conversation is at first playful, but it quickly turns dark after they come inside and into Paris’ office. The smiling young man can pay the $800 price for the car, since he works at the state mental asylum making $30 a week, to which Paris responds that he might get tired of “cleaning crazy people’s shit off the ceiling” and be unable to pay later. At this, the young man becomes more matter-of-fact, assuring the older white man that he can and will pay. Paris Trout then adds $227 worth of insurance to the deal, upping the total significantly, and declares the payments to be $17.50 a week. “That’s real money,” he says, before adding ominously, “Once you make a deal with me, I get m’ money.”

The third piece in the puzzle is put in place next, in a country field where two African-American children are walking through tall grass. The older boy in overalls Chester Sayers and the younger Rosie Sayers in a sack dress are brother and sister. She is taking a dollar to Paris Trout’s store to buy saltine crackers. Just then, as the brother is teasing his sister, a fox appears and chases down the girl, biting her on the leg. We sense the tension— there is a rabies outbreak in the county. Once she arrives in the store, wide-eyed young Rosie is alone, disheveled, and frightened. Despite her husband’s objections, Hanna Trout takes the girl to the clinic for medical attention.

At the clinic, the nurse who tends to Rosie is cold, then the doctor comes in with a massive needle, saying that she can either take a shot in the stomach or get a ride home from the police. The scared child chooses the ride home, leaving without treatment for a bite from a probably rabid fox.

When the police car pulls into the dirt yard of a cluster to rundown shacks, the array of black teenagers and children eye the arrival suspiciously. The young man who bought the car at Paris Trout’s store is wiping it down nearby. The officer lets Rosie out and gives her to her mother. Inside the house, her mother wants to know what bit the child, and the older brother (who climbed a tree then left Rosie alone) is there to say that it was a fox. Their mother quickly responds that the girl hasn’t been poisoned by the disease and not to worry. Despite the bad decision not to treat a child for exposure to a fatal disease, we understand that their poverty gives them little choice.

In the next scene, Henry Ray, who is Rosie’s oldest brother, has a carload of children at a gas station, where he is filling up and buying them popsicles. Everyone seems happy, until he backs away from the gas pump and into a large truck that was behind him. The fender bender results in the revelation that the car he bought is not in good condition as he believed, but has simply been painted over.

Returning to the back door of Paris Trout’s store, the young man explains the situation, first to Hanna then to Paris, and wants to invoke the privilege of his insurance. The problem is: he has not yet made a single payment, but just drove off in the car. Paris Trout refuses to abide his request, so the young man stomps off in a huff, telling Paris to keep the car, that he will not be paying anything. Shouting after him, Paris responds that he will indeed get his money.

That evening at the Trouts’ home, they are eating dinner together. Paris is obviously disgruntled, and the tension between the couple is clear. We know from the opening monologue that the couple has not been married long, though they are both clearly middle-aged. This brief scene develops their relationship a little bit and provides a calm before the storm that is coming.

The next day, a car drives up a dirt road to the black community’s shanties. The Sayer family is on the porch, and Henry Ray runs off immediately upon seeing the car pull up. Paris and another man get out of the car and proceed to the porch, where Paris snatches up Rosie’s soft-spoken brother Chester (the one who left her after the fox attack) and puts on a set of brass knuckles. He has every intention of beating the young boy until he confesses to where his brother might have fled, but Rosie begins to holler. Perhaps panicked or maybe just plain mean, Paris Trout first punches then shoots young Rosie, then his companion shoots her mother. Paris pauses, goes back to the front porch to speak to the man with him, though we don’t hear what they say, then Paris comes back into the house to unload a few more rounds into the two. When we leave them, mother and daughter are lying side by side in the backyard, clinging to life.

That night, Harry Seagraves (Ed Harris) comes to the Trout home to see Paris. Seagraves is a pleasant, smiling man who waits politely although he acknowledges that his business is urgent. Though at first he won’t tell Hanna what has happened, she learns about the situation as the two men speak. As we might expect, a recalcitrant Paris insists that he has done nothing wrong, and was only collecting a debt owed to him, yet Harry explains that killing two women in their own house, one of them only twelve years old, presents a greater problem. Paris then attempts to defend himself by claiming that Buster Devaughn, the man who was with him, committed acts that were just as serious. Harry contends that they may both be in big trouble and would do well not lean on each other. Paris asks Harry to leave and tells Hanna not to concern herself with it. Curious as to the truth, however, Hanna then goes to visit young Rosie at the hospital, but finds out that she has died, though the doctor allows her to see the bullet wounds as he explains how the shots killed her.

The next several scenes show us the callous nature of Paris Trout. First, Paris waits on Harry outside the courthouse and, with a fair bit of good humor, wonders out loud whether the matter is over. Harry tells him that it isn’t but Paris seems confused about why his actions will come back to haunt him. Next, we see Paris confront Hanna in the bath over her visiting Rosie, and for a moment, he violently attempts to drown her as he reminds his wife that she has an “obligation”— “’til death do us part,” he says. After this, Harry and Paris appear in the office of the young state’s attorney who informs Paris that he will be charged for the girl’s death and the shooting of her mother. Again, Paris’ response is sheer dismay, and he and Harry propose that killings are not uncommon in the black neighborhood— but the young DA responds that their explanation would mean that the mother shot herself in the back three times. Paris will have to face justice.

In perhaps an attempt to defend his client, Harry Seagraves then goes to the Sayers’ home to survey the scene. Henry Ray is there on the porch and tries to thwart him, but yields to a two-dollar bribe to let the lawyer in. Inside the house, Harry see the blood stains and bullet holes, and we understand that he is moved to pity by the helplessness of the family to face down Paris’ callousness. Further changes are foreshadowed when we next see Hanna attending the funeral of young Rosie.

Back at the store, Hanna shows up for work to find Paris severely drunk and belligerent. The wife tries to speak compassionately but honestly to her husband, but he is having none of it. Paris insists that his wife hates his strength and wants him “pitiful.” He tells her to to go into the store and get him something to drink. But when Hanna returns the angry, drunk man throws her face-down on the desk, lifts her skirt, and sexually assaults her with the glass bottle she brought to him.

In a voice-over that plays as we watch her pack her things, Hanna explains that she left Paris Trout that day. Though she does not leave town, nor even his home, but moves across the hall to her own bedroom. Yet, when Paris arrives home and finds what she has done, he beats on the door and screams at her through it.

By this point, about halfway through the movie, Paris Trout has revealed himself to be nothing short of a monster, yet his behavior will get even more bizarre and hateful. As Hanna watches out the window from her bedroom, she sees Paris and a black laborer unloading large sheets of glass from a truck and carry them upstairs to what had been their bedroom. The laborer remarks that he doesn’t see any broken glass in the room, but Paris tells him that it’s for later. Paris then is heard banging in the room, and when Hanna goes to see what he has done, she finds the glass nailed to the floor. And as she steps across it, her footprints marks everywhere she has stepped . . .

That evening, Hanna comes downstairs to respond to the sound of repeated crashing and breaking. Paris is in the kitchen, pulling the items out of the refrigerator and smashing them on the floor. When Hanna arrives in the room, Paris tells her suspiciously that he believes she is trying to poison him. During the tense scene, Hanna cuts her foot on some glass. Soon after, Harry arrives at the house, looking for Paris who has left, and he helps Hanna to get out.

Though Harry has stepped into the Trouts’ marital issues, and though he realizes Paris’ nasty personality, he still must defend Paris in a murder trial, which he sets about doing. In his opening statements at the trial, where Hanna sits quietly in the back row, Harry asks the jury to consider all of the times that they’ve done with business with Paris Trout and to then consider him a reasonable man who could not have done what he is accused of: maliciously killing a little girl and nearly killing her mother. After Harry’s opening remarks are over, Hanna leaves without a word.

From there, Harry goes to Hanna’s room at the boarding house where she is now staying. She invites him in, and as they talk Harry finds out more about Paris Trout’s insidious behavior against his wife, including the sexual assault with the bottle.

Back at the courthouse, the prosecutor first interviews soft-spoken young Chester Sayers, who explained that Paris Trout changed their lives forever. Contrasting his testimony, Harry reminds him that Paris had loaned their family money and helped them in other ways, then suggests that the family’s actions with respect to the car actually changed their relationship. But Chester retorts that it wasn’t the family’s life but “it was Rosie’s life.” After a brief interlude where we see Paris Trout sitting in the dark with his invalid mother, we hear the testimony of Mrs. Sayers, who describes the actions of Paris and Buster Devaughn, who shot them both in cold blood.

Later that evening, Harry stops by Hanna’s room again. He is confused and dismayed, and he begins to confess that he does not want to be obligated to defend the killer of a child. Harry also confesses that he has “personal feelings” for Hanna, and cannot get “the thing he did with the bottle” out of his mind. The two fall into each other’s arms and then into bed. The story just gets even more complicated.

Back in the light of day, Harry is talking to Buster Devaughn, who is on the witness stand. Buster is telling a series of lies to indicate that the whole Sayer family attacked Paris Trout, including stating that little Rosie Sayers had a gun. During his testimony, however, Harry makes a key mistake: he glances back at Hanna and smiles at her, and is caught doing it by Paris Trout, who is paying rapt attention to the defense. Harry then finishes quickly with Buster.

After a brief nighttime chat with Hanna in the car parked on an isolated road, followed by another round between the sheets with her, a clearly troubled Harry then allows Paris to read aloud from a written statement rather than testify. Paris’ statement makes little sense and centers on the idea that he has no idea how the actions unfolded. He follows that up with some babble about how he only tries to help people. Back in Harry’s office, a smiling Paris believes that he will be acquitted, but Harry warns him not to be so sure. Paris retorts that he has forgotten where they are – in the Jim Crow-era Deep South – and that he has also looked after Paris far less than he has looked after Hanna.

Paris then finds out that he has been convicted of manslaughter but walks out of the courthouse. A deputy has to go pick him up at his house to take him to prison. Paris calmly follows him, gets into the car, and they drive. At the prison, Paris sits calm until he is attended to by another man, and that’s all we see.

However, back at the Trout’s home, as Harry and Hanna collect her things to settle into a life without her husband in it, Paris appears at the screen door. His brow is furrowed and he snarls at Harry, saying, “I could shoot you like a common thief.” But the couple passes him on the porch without incident.

The conclusion of Paris Trout comes quickly. Harry and Hanna wonder what will happen since Paris has bribed his way out of serving any time. Meanwhile, the city’s leaders meet about a public celebration that is coming up, but the discussion quickly shifts to the fact that Paris appeared back home the day after he was carted off. Harry can only ensure them that Paris will stay to himself and likely not seek out any trouble. But that isn’t what will happen. As the celebration commences, a tearful Paris Trout loads his gun and his pockets with bullets, marches into his mother’s nursing home, carries her out in his arms, and takes her to Hanna’s room in the boarding house. When Hanna leaves the street party and goes in, she finds her mother-in-law shot to death on the floor, and Paris is there waiting for her, gun in hand. Soon, Harry comes in to check on his new girlfriend, and Paris shifts his attention to Harry, shooting him several times. As Harry bleeds on the floor, with Hanna attending to him, Paris tells Hanna, “You ain’t never felt sorry for me,” and puts the gun in his own mouth.

In the final scene, in the local graveyard, Hanna’s stands over a fresh grave as her voice-over comments on the deaths of Harry, Paris, and Rosie: “It’s the oldest lesson in the South,” she says. “It is easier to bury than to forget.”

The movie, which was released on the pay channel Showtime in April 1991, received a good bit of attention, not much of it positive. The Los Angeles Times called it “a dramatic reach deep into the dark hollows of racism, abuse and murder,” while The New York Times’ review had this to say:

But there are no sweet tales of racial harmony in this steamy exploration of almost pure evil. Although portrayed with subtle touches of sympathy by the riveting Mr. Hopper, Paris is a terrifyingly vengeful monster. His scenes of violence make the average horror movie seem like child’s play. Fat and menacing and devilishly shrewd, Paris is an unforgettably repugnant creation.

Perhaps more virulent was the Washington Post‘s review, titled “Paris Trout: Southern Discomfort,” which began:

One logical question provoked by a viewing of “Paris Trout”: “What on earth was the purpose of that?”

and later stated:

Although it does not claim to be based on a true story, we’re being asked to accept what happens as representative of all other violent injustices of the era, and to view Paris Trout as epitomizing the human race at its loathsome lowest. It’s very safe to make a film condemning the bigotry of another time, however. There’s more value in confronting the intolerance and inhumanity that still exist in the world. “Paris Trout” is a contribution to nothing but the bank accounts of the people who made it.

The Post‘s writer commented as well on how novelist Pete Dexter, who also wrote the screenplay, had “boiled [the story] down to gruesome simplistics, jettisoning most of the context,” which could explain some of the narrative’s difficulty (like the inexplicable presence of Paris’ mother who plays no real role in the film.)

As a portrayal of the South, Paris Trout certainly captures the reality of mid-century Deep Southern bigotry, as well as its attendant unjust legal system. However, the story also allows room for deeper inspection by offering the characters of Hanna Trout, who defies her husband rather than support his behavior, and Harry Seagraves, the lawyer whose conundrum connects his pangs of conscience to his inability to remove himself from participating in injustice. While Paris Trout does show us the differences in both standard of living and expectations of justice between white and black Southerners, and while it does lay out the ugliest examples of a social system based on white-supremacist patriarchy, it also centers its story on an atypical Southerner— Paris Trout is no more the average Southerner than Ignatius J. Reilly or Boo Radley. Instead, he is the sum total of the worst of all worsts, all poured into one man. We do get to see what he does, but in this film we never do get know understand why. And perhaps more importantly, we get almost nothing about what other the people in town think of him or how they feel about what he has done.

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