Walking Tall

Leif Garrett and Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall (dir. Phil Karlson, 1973).

Like much low-budget shock horror from the same period (e.g., Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), this southern-fried revenge drama is one of those movies that takes on a strange resonance as a result of its shoestring production value and un-self-consciously awkward deployment of an out-of-date filmic grammar. The film's images insert the current events of the day into a generically constrained narrative context that re-translates them as heroic pathos (a pathos that increases as it approaches, but does not quite embrace, an anti-heroic conclusion). Civil rights, Vietnam, and economic recession are interpreted as occasions of private violence and mourning--and their climactic manifestation takes the form of a distorted life/death mask (Buford Pusser's plaster facial cast) very much like Leatherface's in Chain Saw. The visual shock of bloodied expressionlessness becomes a symbol for national trauma. Johnny Mathis' melancholy ballad intones its elegaic equation over the end credits: "when too long becomes too late."

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