Spare and elliptical, BRIGHT ANGEL sets a violent coming-of-age story against the bleak backdrop of the modern American West.
George Russell (Dermot Mulroney), a handsome, aimless young man, is going through a bad time. His parents (Sam Shepard and Valerie Perrine) have separated acrimoniously, and his mother has disappeared after hitting the road with another man. His father becomes increasingly morose and
uncommunicative, and his own future stretches before him like a long spell of desolate road.
Into this depressing picture saunters Lucy (Lili Taylor), an enigmatic drifter who strikes George as impossibly sophisticated and desirable. The two team up to pursue their destinies. George wants to visit his Aunt Judy (Mary Kay Place), hoping that she's heard word from his mother. Lucy's
brother is in jail in the same town, and she has a plan to get him out. The two quarrel and get to know one another, eventually becoming lovers.
George's visit with his aunt is troubling; she hasn't seen her sister and her husband, a black Vietnam veteran confined to a wheelchair, is mentally unbalanced and obsessed with firearms and vengeance. Lucy's encounter with her brother's criminal associates, Art Falcone (Burt Young) and the
volatile Bob (Bill Pullman), is hardly better. They're threatening and don't seem trustworthy, but she arranges a rendezvous to exchange the money that's supposed to buy her brother's freedom. It all goes terribly wrong; the money is stolen and George and Lucy are beaten and left handcuffed to an
abandoned oil rig in the pouring rain. Lucy dies before help comes, and though George survives the night, he's permanently changed.
Adapted by author Richard Ford from two of his own short stories, "Children" and "Great Falls," BRIGHT ANGEL is the filmic equivalent of the minimalist writing that dominated the literary scene of the early 1990s. Director Michael Fields makes the most of the iconography of the West, the
scattered houses, barren countryside and above all the vast emptiness of the highways that connect an apparently endless series of dusty towns and truckstop oases.
BRIGHT ANGEL is first and foremost a road movie. George and Lucy may think they're looking for other people--his mother, her brother--but what they're really searching for is themselves, and true to the rules of the genre, that's what they find. Lucy is the title's bright angel, so it's no wonder
she finds herself in death; George must make do with some thorny insights into his own soul.
The film moves slowly and until the last quarter of its running time relies on small effects to put its story across. As a result, the film rests on excellent performances, particularly from Mulroney, Taylor and an altogether surprising Bill Pullman. The star of Wes Craven's THE SERPENT AND THE
RAINBOW, Pullman's bland blondness has largely restricted him to less-then-memorable supporting roles. But Pullman, his hair dyed greasy black, turns in a show-stopping performance as Bob, a smiling sociopath.
While some viewers may find the brutal ending gratuitous, it's no more out of place than a tornado or a flash flood would have been. BRIGHT ANGEL takes place in a world in which violence is a natural phenomenon, lying just beneath the surface and waiting for the inevitable confluence of elements
that will allow it to erupt. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations, adult situations, nudity.)
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