Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Poor Jeremy Davies: Three years ago, the young actor’s work as a parentally oppressed, wormily incestuous adolescent in Spanking the Monkey earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Debut Performance. His efforts led to juicy leads in two subsequent movies, The Locusts and Going All the Way, both of which require him to recycle his breakthrough role and which, due to the vagaries of film distribution, have now opened simultaneously.

No one could accuse Davies of lacking talent, but he’s been so narrowly typecast that it’s difficult not to regard him as a one-trick pony. With his short, broomstick frame, tiny head, and big ears, he was born to play insecure characters. He has mastered the grammar of repression—spastic twitches, winces, stammers, eyes burning with impacted pain. Like Robert Walker and Montgomery Clift, the doomed actors he physically resembles, he projects youthfulness as a terminal disease. Although unsparingly expressive, his performances, like James Dean’s and Tony Perkins’, are so mannered that, after seeing him a few times, one hopes to be spared further exposure to the agony of hearing him try (and fail) to complete a sentence and the alarming sight of his pale, scrawny buttocks as he thrusts (but fails) to achieve orgasm.

Writer-director John Patrick Kelley’s The Locusts, the longer and better of Davies’ new features, is a steamy, languorous melodrama, a throwback to the ’50s’ crypto-homoerotic plays of Tennessee Williams (Sweet Bird of Youth) and William Inge (Picnic). A mysterious macho drifter with the Williamsesque name Clay Hewitt wanders into a remote Midwestern farming community where he sexually inflames the female populace and unearths long-buried secrets. No, Davies doesn’t play the stud. That honor goes to Vince Vaughn, who handles the role with unexpected sweetness. Davies is Flyboy, the emotionally damaged son of Clay’s feed-lot boss, man-eater Delilah Ashford Potts (Kate Capshaw). At 13, Flyboy cracked up following his father’s suicide and was committed to the state mental institution where, for eight years, he was subjected to shock therapy. Now released, he serves as Delilah’s cook and maid—she forces him to wear a yellow apron—and communicates only with his dead father’s pet white bull.

Clay spends the film’s opening reels trying to evade Delilah’s ball-busting advances, romping in the woods with Kitty, a nubile local played with sexy warmth by Ashley Judd, and bonding with Flyboy, whom he pities. (After watching Davies stutter and squirm, you will too.) The second hour consists of a series of sordid revelations about the principal characters—the list includes rape, incest, and murder—which results in a brace of suicides by the fadeout.

Kelley’s screenplay is laughably overheated, especially his ponderous use of locust and bull-castration symbolism. But he has a sure hand with actors—only hard-faced, impassive Capshaw fails to locate the essence of her boozy, concupiscent character—and a painterly sense of light, color, and atmosphere, a vision smoothly realized by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Teamed with a stronger, less derivative screenwriter, Kelley could turn out to be a filmmaker of consequence.

Near the end of Lolita, Humbert Humbert observes that “sex is but the ancilla of art.” It would be amusing to hear him debate this assertion with Sonny Burns, the protagonist of Mark Pellington’s coming-of-age movie Going All the Way, who conjectures, “I guess even art leads to pussy.”

Dan Wakefield has adapted his best-selling 1970 novel for the screen, diminishing the book that Kurt Vonnegut called “the Midwestern Catcher in the Rye” into a cartoonish account of two young men who return to Indianapolis after serving in the Korean War and struggle to find themselves. The film’s press material indicates that they seek to address “The Big Questions of Life,” but as in most recent youth movies, their efforts largely center on trying to get laid.

Stifled in an environment populated almost exclusively by religious fanatics, rabid anti-communists, and husband-hunting pushovers, pathologically shy photographer Sonny (Davies, obviously) and self-assured jock Gunner Casselman (Ben Affleck) forge an unlikely Ratso Rizzo-Joe Buck alliance. Military experience has altered their priorities. Repressed Sonny has become obsessively libidinous, and womanizing Gunner yearns to explore the mysteries of art and Zen Buddhism.

None of these goals is easy to achieve in conformist 1954 Indiana. Sonny’s monster mother Alma (Jill Clayburgh, in an atrocious performance) restricts him to a diet of sweets and Christian tracts—”Fuck you, God!” he howls in exasperated rage—and Gunner’s hot-to-trot bachelor-girl mom Nina (Lesley Ann Warren) attempts to seduce him away from his dates. At wit’s end, the young men decide to escape to Manhattan, Gunner in pursuit of a sexy art student (Rachel Weisz) and Sonny to evade the clutches of his longtime girlfriend (Amy Locane). They have to survive a suicide attempt (guess whose?) and a near-fatal car crash before achieving geographical and spiritual liberation.

The difficulties Korean War vets experienced in their efforts to re-enter Midwestern society, a subject thoughtfully treated in Vincente Minnelli’s colorful adaptation of James Jones’ Some Came Running, are depicted with Porky’s-like vulgarity by Pellington, a music-video director making his feature debut. A barrage of MTV devices—fast and slow motion, rapid-fire editing, a soundtrack of 17 pop and blues recordings—fails to conceal the obviousness of Wakefield’s one-dimensional characters and tired themes.

Apart from Clayburgh, the actors seem capable of performing successfully in a more faithful adaptation of Wakefield’s novel. But in Pellington’s talentless hands, their efforts are limited to spouting clichés and writhing through simulated sex scenes that leave them looking as uncomfortable as the audience feels watching them.

As for Davies, he’s going to have to extend his range if he hopes to avoid career burnout. I recommend a diet of milkshakes and tranquilizers while waiting for a change-of-pace role to materialize.CP