Coppola: The Rainmaker (1997)

The Rainmaker is unique in Francis Ford Coppola’s filmography – he’s made no film quite like it before or since. In part, that’s because it occupies such a unique position within his body of work as a whole, released only one year after the emotional catharsis of Jack, but before the longest hiatus in his career to date, after which his style and approach changed fairly dramatically. Most of Coppola’s films since Apocalypse Now fall into one of two categories – either they try to recapture his 70s heyday, or else admit and allegorise the impossibility of doing so. The Rainmaker, however, is special in that Coppola relaxes into his 70s style with nothing to prove, with no auteurist agon, producing some of the best storytelling of his career.

That’s fortunate, since The Rainmaker is also a very good story – part of a swathe of John Grisham novels that inspired the Hollywood legal drama as it looked in the 1990s. Of all those novels, The Rainmaker is perhaps the most accomplished, and the most pessimistic about the law – virtually the only novel of Grisham’s classic period written in the simple present tense – which works naturally alongside the elegiac melancholy of Coppola’s late period output. As with so many Grisham stories, we’re presented with an lawyer ingénue, this time in the guise of Rudy Baylor, a Memphis practicioner played by Matt Damon, the 1990s ingénue par excellence. Unlike most of his fellow graduates at the University of Memphis Law School, Rudy hasn’t secured a job at a law firm, and doesn’t have money to fall back upon, so he’s forced to take the first position he can get – working for “Bruiser” Stone, an ambulance chaser played by Mickey Rourke. In fact, Rudy spends most of his time working for Deck Shifflet, Bruiser’s right hand man, played by Danny DeVito, who Rudy learns hasn’t even passed the Bar yet. As Deck teaches Rudy the ins and outs of ambulance chasing – stuff you can only learn on the job – Rudy gets his first case, which also happens to be the biggest case of Deck’s career too.

The case in question is one of insurance bad faith, in which a local plaintiff, Dot Black, played by Mary Kay Place, claims that Great Benefit Insurance hasn’t adequately provided for her son, Buddy Black, played by Red West, who is dying of leukaemia. Buddy might still have a chance, Dot contends, if Great Benefit had agreed to fund an experimental medical treatment, instead of sending her one rejection letter after another. Rudy and Deck decide to take on Great Benefit, who are represented by a major law firm, headed by Leo F. Drummond, played by Jon Voight. They get a lucky break when the original judge – a conservative – is replaced by Justice Harvey Hale, played by Danny Glover, even though the case is far from won, especially given that Rudy is utterly inexperienced and Deck still can’t practice law. To some extent, this produces a classic courtroom drama, but the story is told in broad sweeps, also focusing on Rudy’s relationship with Kelly Riker, a domestic abuse victim played by Claire Danes, and his friendship with Miss “Birdie” Birdsong, played by Teresa Wright, a client who hires him to disinherit her son, and then invites him to live in the outhouse in her backyard.  

Throughout this rambling, ambling narrative, which stretches over two hours, Coppola suffuses his scenes with a distinctively 70s sense of duration, desuetude, and urban decay, albeit with an irreverent and comic edge that prevents The Rainmaker ever descending into bland nostalgia. Rudy and Deck operate on the fringes of respectable legal practice, while living and working on the fringes of upscale Memphis, making Coppola’s film a portrait of those pockets of the Tennessee city that haven’t yet benefited – or suffered – from the gentrification boom of the 1990s. Much of the film seems to take place across different cinematic periods, all fluidly connected by Coppola’s serene widescreen approach, and overlaid with an elegiac, autumnal quality that revolves around the depictions of Buddy’s sick bed, which later becomes his death bed. Most of Rudy’s clients are either very old or very young, while both of his younger clients have a somewhat foreclosed future – Buddy because he has leukaemia, and Kelly because she could be murdered any day by her violent husband.

All of these features make The Rainmaker a portrait of the widening spaces between generations, forcing Coppola’s vistas to get wider too, in order to capture the scope of the story at its most expansive. For most of the film, this intergenerational spaces is elastic enough for the narrative to continue, but it still depends on constant, patient, peripatetic movement, for both Coppola and Rudy, along with the rich and detailed sense of place that only comes from sustained shooting on location. Just as Dot is on the verge of losing her son, so Memphis seems on the verge of losing its history, as we continually shift between decaying inner city neighbourhoods and fading suburban precincts on the other hand, and newer and more anonymous structures on the other, most of which correspond to particularly austere or dehumanizing moments in the narrative. In a way, the story is Grisham’s elegy for Memphis, and for the men who made Memphis, since there are no reliable middle-aged men in the film, with the exception of Danny Glover as Judge Hale, which is perhaps why he brings such an incredible dynamism into the film, especially during the scenes that occur in his office.

In other words, The Rainmaker only keeps entropy at bay by remaining in constant, languorous motion, making this one of the few films amongst Coppola’s later work where the slow pacing really enhances the story. As the film proceeds, the key spaces grow even more distended, as Rudy and Deck are forced to set up a second, smaller, subsidiary office, in an even more marginal part of Memphis, when Bruiser himself comes under investigation. Throughout all these scenes, Coppola’s widescreen visions suggest that cinema is the most important language for bridging generations, turning The Rainmaker into an elegy for cinema as Coppola once knew it, Memphis as Grisham once knew it, and all those inner-city and suburban pockets now starved of individual movie theatres by the rise of the 90s multiplex.

This elegy for cinema is especially clear in Coppola’s treatment of Birdie’s house, and the way he situates Teresa Wright, in what would be her last film role after fifty years on the silver screen. Birdie’s house seems transplanted straight from the picket fences of classical Hollywood, making it feel like we have entered a sacrosanct cinematic space whenever the action ventures inside her walls. Coppola also intensifies the autumnal, elegiac mood in these moments, while suffusing Wright’s presence with an old-worldly domesticity, especially after she invites Rudy to reside in her outhouse. Figuratively and emotionally, Birdy’s house feels like a cinematic space, a surrogate for a repertory movie theatre experience that no longer exists – a space where Rudy and the audience can come to bask in a bygone cinematic era.

Birdy’s house, and Wright’s presence, thus gravitate The Rainmaker into an elegy for the public sphere of cinema itself. While there are lots of people in the film, and while we are always moving from person to person, Coppola never shows us a large group of people, or immerses us in a crowd – not even during the courtroom scenes. The waning of cinema seems to have also punctured the public sphere that cinema once served, as Coppola searches for cinematic surrogates to try and resurrect the comforting crowd that once constituted his own cinematic milieu. He comes closest during the deposition scene with Great Benefit, which Rudy and Deck decide to hold outside, in the Black’s backyard, so that the entire neighbourhood can see it, although even this sequence has an air of the fantastic. This, in turn, segues into an overt fantasy sequence involving the only cinema that we see in the film.

This haunting sequence depicts the moment when Rudy and Kelly cement their relationship – meeting in a movie theatre entrance, and then sharing their first tremulous kiss in the theatre itself. At this point, Coppola shifts into a highly stylised register, momentarily shedding the subdued naturalism of the film proper for a brief montage of establishing shots that abruptly pivot the action from Memphis back to the exterior of the Great Benefit head office. This sudden change in tone and location signals that Rudy and Kelly’s romance – the quilting-point of the whole story – can only occur against a broader cinematic ambience that the film is elegizing as past. As a result, this scene just reiterates the melancholy fact that cinema can no longer operate as a bridge between generations, as intergenerational lexicon.

This turns the final trial sequence into Coppola’s own reckoning with cinema, and his place within it. On the one hand, Rudy and Deck do indeed win the case, while Rudy also manages to rescue Kelly from her abusive husband, before entering into a relationship with her himself. Similarly, the pacing and focus of the courtroom scenes cement Coppola’s storytelling groove, steadying his camera after the hyperactivity of Dracula and Jack. At the same time, though, this is hardly a triumphant ending, for a few reasons. Firstly, Rudy’s main client, Buddy, has already died. Second, there’s no single revelatory moment in the case – just constant hard work, dogged pursuit of leads and creative working within the law (which is part of the reason the film is so long), all of which tends to mitigate against a conventionally cathartic ending.

However, the most sobering element of the denouement is the revelation that Great Benefit deliberately pursued a policy of refusing insurance claims by default, and aggressively pursuing customers in poorer neighbourhoods – customers who wouldn’t typically have the means to contest these refusals. In other words, Great Benefit are responsible for reiterating the urban blight gradually settling upon the inner-city and suburban neighbourhoods depicted in the film, meaning that their corruption becomes inextricable from the devolution of cinematic community as Coppola imagines it over Grisham’s narrative. Despite the happy ending, the triumph of Big Health is as inevitable as the decline of cinema, as poor healthcare and vanishing cinemas converge on a melancholy diagnosis of American downward mobility.

For that reason, the film, like the novel, can’t quite accept this happy conclusion as a happy ending – or quite broker the end of the trial into the end of the narrative itself. Despite his massive windfall here, Rudy realises that he’s not likely to strike the same success twice, at least when it comes to taking on insurance companies, and decides to leave both Memphis and the law, by aiming for a teaching career. Meanwhile, Coppola’s autumnal tone deepens, and the film grows more muted, until we’re almost back at the same place, tonally, as the ending of The Godfather II, with the same complex generational anxiety behind us. In the end, despite the massive cast and peripetatic pace, The Rainmaker is only almost an ensemble drama, since the final note here is that the sweep of cinema, and American culture, can no longer sustain an ensemble drama any more, causing Rudy to retreat to the classroom, and Coppola to retire for a full decade, before returning with his most arcane body of work so far.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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