In the seventies, Hollywood was trying to figure out what to do next. The major studios had pretty much collapsed in the sixties. High-profile movies with big stars were bombing at the box office, while low-budget films that ignored all the accepted rules were raking in millions. Realizing that the old formulas weren’t working any more, but clueless as to what the younger generation wanted, studio execs greenlighted a number of offbeat projects in the hope they’d get lucky. It was a heady time. Sure, the studios still put our plenty of bland rubbish, but for a while when you went to the movies you knew there was a chance you’d see something new and different.
Scarecrow was definitely different. From the opening scene with two guys standing on opposite sides of a lonely country road, not speaking a word of dialogue, you can tell this movie has a rhythm all its own. For the most part, Scarecrow just follows these two rootless men, Max and Lion, as they hitch across the country. In place of a plot, you just have people, and the film takes it’s own sweet time, letting you get to know each of the people these two guys encounter.
Max has just gotten out of jail, and plans to open a car wash with the money he saved while he was doing time. Lion has been away at sea, but now he’s decided he has to go back home and try to connect with the child he fathered but hasn’t seen. At first, the two don’t have much in common, aside from the fact that they’re heading in the same general direction. But over time they become fast friends, and we realize that one thing they do have in common is that they’re both terribly naive. They may be grown men, but in many ways they’re as innocent as children. Neither one really understands the world around them.
As Max, Gene Hackman shows what made him such a unique and compelling actor. He has an unselfconscious openness, a fuzzy looseness that makes him seem completely accessible, but he also has a presence that holds your attention and an energy that’s a little scary. You’re always a little afraid of what he might do. Al Pacino plays Lion, and he still has the freshness of a young actor who’s willing to take chances. Lion is kind of shy, unsure of himself and of the world around him, and his reactions often seem as spontaneous as a child’s.
But the whole cast is wonderful. Eileen Brennan just has a small part as an irascible barfly, and still makes an impression in the short time she’s on screen. Dorothy Tristan radiates an easy warmth as an old friend that Max decides to drop in on. She never says a word when he starts flirting with her partner Frenchy, but you can see the twinge of jealousy in her eyes. Ann Wedgeworth plays Frenchy with an unabashed openness that’s totally winning. She immediately falls for Max, and she can’t stop flashing her huge smile, just waiting for him to make a move.
It’s not just that the actors are in fine form. Director Jerry Schatzberg knows how to use them. Again, this movie is primarily about people, and Schatzberg shapes each scene to bring us closer to the characters. Screenwriter Garry Michael White gives him a lot to work with. You have to wonder if White didn’t spend some time hitchhiking himself. He seems to know these people and their world well. The cinematography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, slowly unfolds a panorama of the American landscape. This movie was shot in the bars and coffee shops, cheap hotels and bus stations that line this country’s rural highways. Zsigmond shows us the worn and wasted beauty in all of it without ever making us aware there’s someone behind the camera. Editor Evan Lottman is completely in tune with the movie’s vibe, throwing away the rule book and letting the people and the places determine the pace.
Max keeps talking about his car wash. Lion keeps thinking about the day he’ll get to see his child. What makes their story sad is that both of them are going nowhere. What makes it beautiful is that at least they’re going there together.