Forgotten Gem: Sayles’ Passion Fish takes us for longing

Passion-fish

Passion Fish – 1992

Written and Directed by John Sayles
Starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Angela Bassett, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Leo Burmester, Lenore Banks, John Henry Redwood

“White trash?” said Chantrelle.
“It’s more complicated than that…” Mary-Alice replied.

There is a mid-way through Passion Fish where Mary-Alice (McDonnell) sees her “more complicated than that” crush Rennie (Strathairn) for the first time since she left her home town.  The look on her face is different from anything we have seen up to that point in the film.  Lit up, like the 4th of July.  Not a lot of actresses can pull off such a shift believably.  One doesn’t even have to be a fan of McDonnell to notice.

Starting out with the realization that she has lost her feeling on her lower half, her career and her life as she knows it, Mary-Alice spends much of the early part of the story cursing and condescending others.  By the time she meets Woodard’s Chantrelle, she has little in the way of expectations.

May-Alice Culhane: “Did they tell you I was a bitch?”
Chantelle: “On wheels.”

Soon May-Alice discovers that Chantelle will not be scared off.  She needs the job, as much as May-Alice needs someone to break through the wall and get her back to life.  Why Chantelle is so persistent has something to do with addiction, and May-Alice has a challenge with that as well.

Woodard is beautifully unguarded.  Her performance has less of the bluster, but no less of the grit that we’ve become used to from her.  It’s surprising that she was not nominated for more than a Golden Globe.  McDonnell’s performance gets off to a rocky start, more severe than usual. By the time she’s confronted with Strathairn, something opens up and her struggle becomes much more human and serene.  Although the role is not necessarily worthy of the Oscar Nomination, it is good nonetheless.

Strathairn is one of my favorite Sayles performers.  His Rennie is another in a long line of Sayles characters brought to magnificent reality.  His Louisiana accent is perfect, and his sense of innocent longing ups the game of all the other dramatis personae.  That he’s never won a major award is a crime.  The interplay between Strathairn and McDonnell is excellent, and it leads to a point that can be satisfying to those with moral fortitude or those without.

Another performance of note is Curtis-Hall, as Sugar LeDoux, a potential suitor for Chantelle.  The only thing I ever remember seeing him in outside of this was as one of the henchmen in Die Hard 2: Die Harder.  It would be nice to see him do more.

The cinematography of Roger Deakins is remarkable.  He takes considerable advantage of the beauty that abounds in the bayou.  There is much evidence of the techniques that eventually allow him to rack up the 10 Oscar noms.  Even more incredible is that he has never won.

There are a few scenes that seem a little forced.  For some reason, they completely botched the Greyhound scene with Chantelle and her father (Redwood).  The ending seems caught between feel good and purposefully ambiguous.

Sayles direction and screenplay are as evenly blended as ever.  Aside from a rocky start, the film evolves into a pace that is casual, yet deliberate.  Almost everything looks as though it would happen whether we were there to view it or not.  This may not be one of his better films, but it is not without good reason that it is one of the best remembered.

(**** out of *****)

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