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Viewer Guide: “Crimes of the Heart” and “The Lucky Ones”

August 6, 2021 | Richard Peña


Crimes of the Heart (1986)

This week’s classic is Crimes of the Heart, the 1986 Southern Gothic comedy drama directed by Bruce Beresford.

Adapted by Beth Henley from her own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Crimes of the Heart stars Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek as the Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, whose adult lives have led them on steadily diverging paths until a family crisis forces a sudden reunion. Eldest sister Lenny is still living at the family home, increasingly resentful for taking care of the sisters’ “Old Granddaddy,” who took over raising the trio after the suicide of their mother. Middle sister Meg is an aspiring singer whose Hollywood career has stalled after a nervous breakdown. And youngest sister Becky—mostly known as just “Babe”—is the cause of all the uproar, landing in jail after shooting her husband for unknown reasons. Observing all the chaos with more than a little schadenfreude is the sisters’ cousin and neighbor, Chick Boyle, played by Tess Harper, who’s scandalized by Meg’s return due to her past “sordid dealings” with Doc Porter, Meg’s now-married former flame, played by Sam Shepard. As the sisters gather to plan a strategy for Babe’s defense, memories and rivalries resurface, uncovering a family history of “crimes of the heart” that are showing dangerous signs of repeating themselves.

Beth Henley’s play Crimes of the Heart debuted at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, and eventually made its way to Broadway, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981. Australian director Bruce Beresford was tapped to direct the film adaptation after displaying his skill at capturing the American south in Tender Mercies, an affinity that he would repeat in 1989 with Driving Miss Daisy. With the real-life couple Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard co-starring as former lovers Meg and Doc, Lange was actually pregnant with the couple’s daughter Hannah Jane during production. Garnering three Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as Actress and Supporting Actress nods for Sissy Spacek and Tess Harper, the film also marked the second of three collaborations of Harper and Beresford that began with Tender Mercies and then would continue with Her Alibi in 1989.


The Lucky Ones (2008)

This week’s indie is The Lucky Ones, a 2008 comedy drama directed by Neil Burger.

Presumably set during the Iraq War—although the name of the conflict is never mentioned— The Lucky Ones is the story of three army soldiers of different rank, age and circumstance who encounter each other on a flight out of Germany to New York’s JFK Airport. Tim Robbins plays Fred Cheaver, a retiring career army Staff Sergeant on his way to permanently reunite with his wife and son in St. Louis. Rachel McAdams plays Private First Class Colee Dunn, traveling to Las Vegas to return an heirloom guitar to the family of her killed-in-action soldier-boyfriend. And Michael Peña is Staff Sergeant T.K. Poole, whose unfortunate groin injury also has him Vegas-bound…to seek the services of “specialized” sex workers in hopes they can “rehabilitate” him before he reunites with his girlfriend. But upon arriving at JFK, the trio is dismayed to discover that all flights have been cancelled following a city-wide power outage. However, occasionally bad luck can become good fortune, something the trio soon discovers as they manage to rent the last available minivan for an unexpected road trip to points west.

In the vein of films like Coming Home, The Hurt Locker and the classic The Best Years of Our Lives, The Lucky Ones focuses on the experiences of veterans returning from the battlefield as they readapt to civilian life—a readjustment that’s many times confusing at the least and often deeply traumatic. While “coming home” is the dearly held dream of most service members, wartime experience is a rough act to follow. Taking inspiration from the 1973 comedy-drama The Last Detail, The Lucky Ones’ director Neil Burger chose not to directly reference the Iraq War in order to keep the dramatic focus on the lives of the soldiers and not the politics. And despite the casting of the famously anti-war Tim Robbins, The Lucky Ones was one of the few recent Hollywood films to receive complete production support from the U.S. Army.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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