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ALL THE PRETTY HORSES

It’s impossible to know if Billy Bob Thornton succeeded in bringing Cormac McCarthy’s great novel to the screen, at least in the film’s present two-hour form. The widely reported contretemps between the director and Miramax Films, which is distributing the movie, resulted in it being taken away from Thornton and whittled down from his original four-hour cut. Although it’s feasible that the longer version was unbearably slow (as Sling Blade showed, the director favors phlegmatic pacing and Important Moments), in its current incarnation the film verges on incoherent; certainly it is inconsequential. Matt Damon plays John Grady Cole, a young cowboy who heads off to Mexico from Texas after the death of his grandfather. Henry Thomas is his friend and fellow traveler, Rawlins, and the talented young actor Lucas Black plays the runaway Jimmy Blevins, less innocent than primitive, who joins them on the trail. What happens when the three cross into Mexico is shocking and profound. Ted Tally’s screenplay winnows down the more easily translatable and material parts of the journey — a drunken interlude, days and nights of breaking horses, a nightmarishly surreal prison term — but it tells the story with prose and no poetry.

It also, less surprisingly, omits the politics — the novel is a saga of dangerous longing, for lost fathers and a lost America both, and it’s rigorously unsentimental. That makes it interesting, but what makes it breathtaking is McCarthy’s writing, which, with its lush and lapidary language, gets at a depth of meaning the characters can’t articulate. They don’t speak their minds or hearts, because he does it for them. The book is rich in sensuous detail, and it’s the mystery of the natural world surrounding the three boys that tells us the most about the worlds inside them. “He lay a long time listening to the others breathing in their sleep,” McCarthy writes of Cole, “while he contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within.” But there’s little opportunity to contemplate much of anything in this film, especially when every shot seems to last merely three or four beats. (The whole thing plays like an extended coming attractions; you keep waiting for it to actually begin.) And unlike the idyllic Pacific-island scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, or the nocturnal river ride in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, the world in the film seems less a place of wonder and terror than a backdrop to a soapy romance. In McCarthy’s book the sun is often blood red; here it simply shines.

—Manohla Dargis

BEFORE NIGHT FALLS

In his memoir, Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas writes that he grew up “surrounded by trees, animals, apparitions, and people indifferent toward me. My existence was not even justified.” It’s not a statement of self-pity. In the lines that follow, the late Cuban writer makes it clear that the combination of the familial shrug, his own imagination and the unqualified embrace of nature (the farm animals that he played with, the trees that whispered their secrets to him) granted him a profound freedom. It’s what turned him into a sensualist whose rage at political oppression was both intellectual and spiritual, whose awe at rainstorms, great literature and male beauty flowed poetically through him. His was a slyly offhand humor that did more than just deliver a punch line; it encapsulated a pungent point. In one passage, he tells of the sundry livestock that bore the brunt of male libido on his family’s farm. Of a rooster that died after one such encounter, Arenas writes, it “died of shame from getting fucked.”

With the filmed adaptation of the book, ’80s-art-star-turned-director Julian Schnabel captures the spirit of Arenas’ words and life with surprising skill and unexpected artfulness. While the film is kept somewhat at a cool distance due to the thickly accented voice-over by leading man Javier Bardem (there are moments when it’s impossible to decipher what he’s saying), Bardem’s soulful performance and Schnabel’s sigh-inducing visuals are hypnotic; they convey the essence of its subject’s voice and richly contoured perspective. Little in Schnabel’s 1996 feature debut, Basquiat, gave proof that he had any real facility for filmmaking, and only the always-fantastic Jeffrey Wright in the title role made the film worth seeing.

In Before Night Falls, though, the director gracefully fuses performance, politics and style into a film that’s social commentary, coming-of-age tale and glimpse into the psyche of the artist all in one. Epic in scope and ambition, tracing Arenas’ journey from unwanted bastard to political prisoner to American exile, the film maintains a real sense of intimacy throughout. Credit for that goes largely to Bardem, whose liquid eyes are almost lethal in their emotional precision. He gives a delicate performance, one in which his sissy-sway stops short of caricature, conveying strength and vulnerability, wit and self-aware humor. His Arenas is fiercely intelligent, but never loses sight of the fact that he lives in his body.

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