Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
In The Rain People, a pregnant housewife, Natalie (Shirley Knight) leaves her husband and hits the road. She knows not where she is headed, and her aimless travels introduce her to two men whose eventual showdown leaves her hopeless and distraught. Roger Ebert compares this film to Easy Rider, and it’s clear to see why. Both released in 1969, they are road trip movies concerned more with the journey than the destination. While this tends to be the case with most road trip movies, there is often at least the promise of a destination to which the protagonist is headed. In these two films, on the other hand, the characters have no real place in mind. The point is only to get out and to feel a certain kind of freedom you can only feel on the open road.
Both films follow a journey inland from the coast. The bikers in Easy Rider head east from California, traveling through the Southern United States while Natalie heads west from New York, hitting the more northern route which brings her through Nebraska. Each journey brings the protagonists into contact with various locals. The bikers meet a businessman played by Jack Nicholson, and Natalie comes across a former college football player with a severe brain injury (James Caan). Those new friends are both killed through the course of the film, and the final image is one of despair. The bikers of Easy Rider are shot and killed while Natalie mourns over her friend’s body, lamenting all that they’ve each lost.
We never see Natalie interact with her husband, Vinny. She quietly leaves him as he sleeps, then travels to her parents’ house, slow to break the news. She then hits the road and only has a few phone conversations with Vinny from the safety of an isolated phone booth. These conversations usually play out like therapy sessions. Natalie doesn’t know why she wants to escape or what she really wants to escape from. She’s pregnant and afraid of falling into the box Vinny seems intent on putting her in. She wants to be more than a housewife, more than a mother and more than a wife. At the same time she doesn’t know what she’s looking for, only that she hasn’t found it.
In their first conversation, the camera slowly pushes in on Natalie as she speaks, almost like we’re looking through a telephoto lens like someone investigating her from afar. The whole time, of course, we are outside the phone booth, only able to see her through the layer of glass. Her voice is similarly veiled. We faintly hear Vinny’s words over the phone, and while Natalie’s voice is more distinct, we hear it as if we’re on the other side of the phone, listening through the recorder rather than in the same space she is. This effect adds to the idea that we’re spying on her and that we shouldn’t be there.
In other moments within the film, Natalie remains seen through some other filter. It might be another glass window or, more often, her reflection in a mirror. The point almost always seems to be that she is hiding something, but she likely doesn’t know what.
What Natalie is hiding from her husband, I suppose, is her fear. She’s afraid to open up to him and afraid to admit that she doesn’t know what she wants. Maybe she’s concerned about the way he’ll take it, or maybe she’s concerned about how little she cares for him. To admit that something you’ve devoted so much of your life to is wrong is challenging. Anything she admits to Vinny, or to anyone else, is really just a confession to herself, that she screwed up somewhere along the line. And to say that her unborn child is a consequence of that screw up, well it must surely be one hell of a tough spot to be in.
During her journey, Natalie will play both aggressor and victim, just as she must be in her own mind. The phone conversations with Vinny highlight both her possibly cruel behavior towards him (making her the ‘bad guy’) as well as her awareness of her own behavior, making her empathetic if only because she bothers to explore what’s going on in her own mind. But then Vinny cusses her out, and though his anger comes from a place of fear, that vulgar expression of anger makes him much more villainous in our eyes. Our relationship to Natalie constantly changes, sometimes even within the scene.
Natalie is a hard character to lock down, at least at first, because she is still figuring herself out. She’s much more complex than I feel most movie characters are, but those complexities make her all the more relatable, eventually, as just another human.
Natalie picks up a hitchhiker nicknamed killer (Caan), and the relationship between him and Natalie goes through several quick progressions. First she hesitates to pick him up, and we identify him as a possible danger (somewhat because of his name). Then he gets in, they have a polite conversation, and because of their shared youth as well as general attractiveness, we think they may soon get involved romantically. That’s what Natalie’s thinking too, and that night in a motel room, she studies him physically, asking him to remove his shirt.
Killer’s immediate and devout obedience makes both Natalie and the audience question his role in the story. She no longer wants to sleep with him, but she does want to test him, almost as if to see how far she can push him.
Natalie drives Killer to a town in which he thinks he can get a job with a family of an old girlfriend. By this time he’s told us that he used to play college football but was forced to quit after a particularly gnarly head injury. He was given a temporary job raking leaves but then asked to leave by the university. They gave him a thousand dollars for his trouble and sent him on his way. Killer flashes the money around, showing a complete disregard for the ways people might hurt him out of greed.
Once they reach their temporary destination, Natalie observes how cruel Killer’s onetime girlfriend is to him. Knowing he can’t process what’s going on, she shames him and tells her father not to hire him because he’s simple-minded. Though Natalie is hoping to unload Killer, she sympathizes with him and takes him back on the road with her.
Killer is like a golden retriever. When Natalie drops him off on the side of the road, exclaiming that she can’t even take care of herself, it’s difficult to watch Killer just stand there, obedient and alone. Natalie doesn’t get far, feeling the same thing we feel, and Killer gets back in the car.
Eventually she drops him off at a small farm where she convinces a farmer to hire him. In her desperation to give him a safe space at which to live, Natalie shrugs away obvious concerns that the farmer plans to take advantage of Killer. He says he’ll hold onto Killer’s thousand dollars in a safe we later learn he doesn’t have. Then he offers Killer a weekly pay rate surely below what he’d offer someone else, and then he makes it clear just how much of that payment he’ll withhold due to various fees and living costs. Killer doesn’t understand or care what the farmer has to say.
As Natalie leaves town, she is pulled over by a police officer for speeding. Officer Gordon (Robert Duvall) quickly propositions her and tells her to return to town to pay the fine. This brings them both back to the farm where Killer has made a mess of things. The farmer wants him arrested, but Natalie talks him out of it on the condition that he keep all but $200 of Killer’s money.
That night Killer hangs around while Natalie gets ready for her date with Gordon. By this time we’ve seen Killer pace around the phone booth as Natalie talked to her irate husband. As the conversation continued, she made almost constant eye contact with Killer while he stalked her as if she was his prey. Eventually he cut the phone line because she wouldn’t talk to him.
That moment, in which Natalie talks to one man but looks at another, parallels a scene that night when Gordon tells Natalie how beautiful she is even as Natalie knows he’s really talking about his deceased wife.
Just as with Natalie and Killer, Gordon has something in his past he’s running away from, whether he knows it or not. Gordon lives in a trailer with his young daughter, and he tells Natalie, while he’s trying to seduce her, that four years earlier his house burned down, killing his wife and young son.
This revelation is accompanied by quick cuts to the memory, just as the movie did with flashbacks of Natalie’s wedding to Vinny and with Killer’s football injury. The image suggests a meaningfulness to the memories even as the characters attempt to ignore them. In Gordon’s case, he only tells Natalie this to try and sleep with her. When Natalie tells him that he’s really talking about his wife, Gordon gets angry, saying how much he hated her and had been wanting a divorce. What he tells Natalie completely contradicts the images we’re given of him grieving over his wife’s body while the house burned down.
The juxtaposition suggests he’s only a grieving man whose means of survival is to pretend he never cared, and what he has to say about his wife really shows what he has to say about himself, about his inability to move forward.
So the film seems to be a portrait of characters who must go inward to deal with problems that show up externally. It’s like each character is a long math problem that took you hours to solve. You get to the bottom of your work and see that your answer is incorrect. You begin to trace backwards and find that the mistake was in the very first line of your equation.
Or is it? Maybe it’s not like math at all.
The Rain People is Natalie’s attempts to better understand herself and how she found herself in such a situation, trapped at home with a man she may not love. Her attempts at self-discovery bring her into two failed seductions. First her move on Killer reveals to her that he’s nothing like she originally thought. He’s more malleable and controllable.
Her night with Gordon goes in the other direction. Gordon proves to be something much more sinister. When his moves on Natalie are rebuffed, he attempts to rape her. That’s when Killer, who’s been lurking outside, barges in and tackles Gordon. As he repeatedly picks him up like Donkey Kong with a barrel, we see flashes of Killer’s memories from playing football. Those same physical instincts, which eventually got him injured, help him defend Natalie. She tries to stop him when it’s clear he’s going too far, and soon after Gordon’s daughter, using her father’s revolved, shoots Killer dead.
Natalie breaks down as a crowd of neighbors gather. She slowly drags Killer away (impressive in its own right because of his size) and tells him, through tears, that he can come live with her and Vinny, and they’ll be happy together.
It’s basically the end of Of Mice and Men. She promises him a life he would’ve enjoyed, surely, but only after its too late. The lasting image Natalie sobbing and alone is hard to take in, and the abrupt cut to black has the same kind of impact as the fiery end to Easy Rider.
It’s clear a point is being made here, likely about something broader than the literal story. If Easy Rider had a lot to say about the role of free spirits in America, then I think The Rain People has a lot to say about gender in America. It might be reductive to look at Natalie’s journey only through the lens of what it says about gender, but the three most important relationships she has are with men who don’t live up to some kind of expectation. One is too boring, one too subservient and one too aggressive. The point isn’t to indict Natalie’s search, after all any character searching for something is meant to be admired, but what she finds is nothing. The message, then, would seem to be about the futility of answers. Even when you find them, they rarely sufficiently answer the questions.
What I found so striking was that Natalie’s final scene shows her begging to bring Killer home. She wants to return to Vinny and to care for Killer, like she would with her unborn child. She ultimately expresses a goal to return to what she had before this self-exploration.
But is that desire genuine? I don’t imagine so. I find it to be a much more sinister resolution, because the story would then symbolically corrupt her basic goal of freedom. To show a character wanting to be free, and then giving in to some kind of imprisonment is quite brutal. It’s the same feeling I got from Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. That 1943 film introduced us to a young girl named Charlie who wanted only to escape the suburban doldrums which had captured her own parents. The way out, she believes, is through her uncle who seems to represent everything she seeks, namely freedom. When her uncle turns out to be a serial killer, it corrupts not only her view of him but also what he stood for. The end of the film shows her standing with her briefly introduced love interest, and she seems destined for the same life lived by her own parents.
The Rain People is certainly a solemn movie. Whether Natalie returns to her husband or not, she doesn’t really have any strong options. The only person who really meant anything to her was Killer, and even that was only after he died. Before she spent most of her time trying to get rid of him, only showing affection out of some sense of obligation because everyone else treated him so cruelly.
Between Killer and Gordon, the men in this story do not live up to the image of them she’s built up in her head, likely the same problem with Vinny. She approaches them in the same way, putting on makeup and hoping for a fun night out. In both instances, the failure of that plan seems to say more about her own misconceptions. Neither men is anything like she believed him to be. Maybe Vinny offers something more predictable, but just because the unpredictable didn’t work out doesn’t mean the predictable will.
Up Next: Seven Days in May (1964), Mystic River (2003), Stagecoach (1939)