Inner State 5: The Rain People (1969)

02/24/2015  By  Jordan Saïd     Comments Off

Inner State 5 examines American road films. This series of articles will explore their place in the rise of New Hollywood, their common themes of freedom and individualism, and their place in history as perhaps the most fundamentally American film genre. For more in this series, click here.

Before he became the Francis Ford Coppola we know and admire, Coppola made a name for himself in part with a forgotten road drama called The Rain People. In the same way that Antonioni’s Blow-Up inspired Coppola to make The Conversation, Coppola seems to have made The Rain People as a spiritual remake of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Shirley Knight stars as Natalie Ravenna, a long-married housewife with a borderline-pathological aversion to responsibility. When she becomes pregnant, she suddenly leaves her husband and takes to the road. She soon picks up a hitchhiker, Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon (James Caan), a former college football player who turns out to have brain damage that has left him mentally impaired. As they travel together, Natalie struggles with her egoism and comes to see everything she hates about herself mirrored in the people she encounters. They lie to themselves; they evade responsibility; they make fundamentally selfish choices… Most strikingly, like her, they let their baggage define the people they’ve become.

To sell this latter point, Coppola threads present scenes with flashbacks to crucial moments in his characters’ memories. For Natalie, this consists of flashbacks to her supposedly happy marriage to Vinny. The audience never gets a good look at Vinny outside of photographs and flashbacks; we only come to know him as the voice over the phone that alternately excoriates his wife and begs her to come home. As such, we never find out if he and Natalie truly had a happy marriage. Natalie herself doesn’t seem to know either.

Knight’s performance as Natalie carries the film. She unwittingly stumbles upon her relationship with Killer, and she struggles throughout the film to balance this quasi-maternal responsibility with the latent concupiscence that (in part) sent her running out on her husband in the first place. Several times, her low self-esteem drives her to verbally abuse her new partner, but we come to realize that she really intends her invective for herself.

At times, Natalie feels like an example of the “liberated” woman that embodied second-wave feminism. We see hints of how her overbearing parents and old-fashioned husband made her feel robbed of an independent identity throughout her life. She comes to view her wedding day—which should feel like a union of love—as sublimation out of obligation. Worse, these relationships have left her so turned around that she herself doesn’t even know what she wants. This becomes clear as we realize that, while she says she wants to go “west” to “California,” she in fact has no idea where to go or when she’ll reach the point she wants to reach… or become the person she wants to become. Her peregrinations take her from Long Island to Pennsylvania to West Virginia to Tennessee to Alabama to Nebraska; I wouldn’t call that an efficient way to get anywhere.

But I would call it the scenic route to go nowhere.

Nigh-unrecognizable in his relative youth and drastically against-type performance, Caan proves surprisingly versatile as the ironically-named “Killer.” Killer’s acquired developmental disabilities render him this film’s answer to Lennie Small. Caan does an excellent job selling the character’s naïveté and thick skin. His love for Natalie exists in a nebulous zone between romantic and filial, but it never wavers because as much as she mistreats him, he sees the “real” Natalie behind her paroxysms of frustration. Killer seems like the most honest character in the film, but even he lies to himself when he tells himself that Natalie’s abuse doesn’t hurt.

Coppola uses mirrors to show Natalie’s habit of dissociation… and how good James Caan looks in one.

Early in the film, Killer explains the title when he tells Natalie about his belief in “the rain people.” He describes them as a man and a woman made of rain, who will melt away if they cry. The metaphor for himself and Natalie feels a bit on-the-nose, but it proves effective. Rain people live by lying to themselves and by maintaining hope. Their lives depend on hope, even illusory hope.

In the last act, Natalie meets Sergeant Gordon (Robert Duvall), a seemingly benevolent, widowed traffic cop whose real personality comes to embody Natalie’s fears of what she could become. Gordon’s self-deceptions center on his deceased wife, who meant more to him than he admits. Duvall gets relatively little screen-time, but he still ably sells Gordon’s dual nature and need for affection and respect, even as it drives him to do despicable things.

In this early film, we see Coppola utilize the kind of dramatic irony that would shape the plot of the Godfather films. Natalie attempts to outrun any semblance of responsibility only to end up saddled with the most responsibility of her life as Killer’s ersatz caretaker. The open road, which usually symbolizes freedom, comes to symbolize Natalie’s growing obligation to do right by her disadvantaged partner. Killer’s name proves ironic in its own right in several ways.


Natalie tries to stop a predatory employer (Tom Aldredge) from exploiting Killer as Gordon looks on.

I wouldn’t call this a great film; Coppola still had yet to master his craft in 1969. A road movie makes for good practice though. Coppola grabs the occasional gorgeous wide shot and does some interesting things with chiaroscuro in some interior scenes. But the score and much of the rest of the cinematography feel mundane and utilitarian. The screenplay has a bit too much repetition, to the point that it tension-building scenes and tension-releasing scenes bleed together, causing a clouded momentum for much of the film’s second half. Natalie’s illeism gets annoying after a while too.

The ending largely redeems the film, though. Natalie finds herself in the crossfire of a confrontation that throws into stark relief the cruel, uncompromising nature of the world. She, and the viewer, come to understand what Killer meant by “the rain people,” along with the value of compassion and hope in such an aleatory and selfish world. But one question lingers long after the film’s sudden straight cut to black… Did she learn this lesson in time?

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About Jordan Saïd


Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.