I want to begin with a simple statement:
Human Stain is a good movie. I want to establish that before I get off
on a rant about how nobody will ever want to see it, because if you are
that one person in a hundred who appreciates Ibsenesque insight, it may
be your kind of film. It features a cast of four excellent actors who
play their parts perfectly (Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinese, Sir Tony
Hopkins, Ed Harris). It is a serious, faithful adaptation of a
significant novel. It contains human truth and some vivid analysis of
society. I admire what it accomplishes.
But I'll be damned if I can figure out
why the investors thought they'd get their substantial investment back.
It is a thirty million dollar film packed with stars, but it has the
soul of an arthouse indy. The other 99% of you will find it duller than
an evening with Andy Rooney, and more painfully serious and obviously
wounded than John Hurt discussing world hunger. It is an
oh-so-serious-and-literary treatment of a man who is fired for making a
"racist remark," although he did not. He is a college lecturer and two
of his students have never shown up for class. He asks, "do these people
really exist, or are they spooks?" I guess he should have said
"phantoms" instead of "spooks", because it just so happens that the two
missing students are of African descent, and one of them turns the
remark into a racial incident.
Why is this enough material for a film?
Because the offending professor is, himself, a light-skinned African
American man who has been passing for white since he graduated from high
school and joined the navy. Within a few years after that time, he was
in a different city, he and his family had turned their backs on one
another, and there was nobody to dispute his whiteness. His white wife
lived with him for forty years and never suspected.
The film chronicles his life after the
incident which provoked his resignation, and flashes back to the path
that led him to that point in the first place. Ultimately, the film
suggests obliquely that perhaps all of our assumptions are incorrect,
and that he really might harbor a form of racist feelings against black
people, even though he is black himself.
The forward engine of the story is,
unbelievably enough, a love story between the disgraced professor and a
young female janitor half his age, played by Nicole Kidman. The Kidman
character has also rejected her own past, although she has moved in a
direction nearly the opposite of the professor's. She came from a
wealthy family and rejected their values to do some downward social
climbing, resulting in a trailer-trash life, a violently insane husband
(Ed Harris), and a tragic incident involving the loss of her children.
The black/white man and the downwardly mobile woman, lovers who have
each rejected their families, manage to find some (uneasy) comfort in
Yeah, you read that right. It's Nicole
Kidman and Hannibal Lecter in the sack.
Ed Harris is tremendous in this movie.
Not only does he depart from his usual refined self, but you'll barely
recognize him, and he'll just frighten the hell out of you. It is
amazing to me how he can take his haunted intensity and apply it in so
many different ways. After I saw this film, I realized that Harris has
just the right qualities to make an excellent villain in a horror movie.
The film was directed by Robert Benton
who is most famous for having written Bonnie and Clyde and having
directed Kramer vs Kramer. He's not exactly what one might call
prolific. In 31 years as a director, he's made only ten films:
- (7.39) -
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
- (7.36) -
Places in the Heart
- (7.19) -
Nobody's Fool (1994)
- (7.07) -
Bad Company (1972)
- (6.78) -
Human Stain, The (2003)
- (6.51) -
Late Show, The (1977)
- (6.11) -
- (6.07) -
Still of the Night
- (5.72) -
Billy Bathgate (1991)
- (5.22) -
That's not a bad list at all. Benton has
seven Oscar nominations and three wins (one as a director, two as a
writer). He has been nominated for his work on five different films. The
Human Stain has been ranked in the middle of his career output by IMDb
voters, beating out one of his Oscar nominees. That's fair enough. As I
said in the first sentence, it is a good movie, but I don't know how the
investors thought this kind of literary introspection would pay off,
because it is not only a serious film, but a seriously depressing one as
well. Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as "a riddle wrapped
in a mystery inside an enigma". If he saw this movie, he might have
called it "calamity wrapped in pathos inside of tragedy". From the
board's callous firing of the professor, to the professor's callous
rejection of his family, to the tragedies of Kidman's past, to Harris's
insanity, to the ultimate tragic conclusion of the bizarre love
triangle, this may be the single most depressing film you'll ever see.
It just had "feel-good summer
blockbuster" stamped all over it!
I reckon Miramax knew it would lose
money, but considered this a "prestige" picture and hoped it might
warrant some Oscar consideration, at least for the actors if no other
categories. Had that been the case, the additional publicity might have
pushed the receipts up as well, but that never happened, despite the
undisputed ability of Miramax to lobby successfully for awards