There are some things that are always interesting when it comes to movies. Films directed by someone primarily known as an actor, especially if they also star in the same film. Genre-blending, such as comedy-westerns. Film debuts of actors and actresses who would go on to become big names. Seeing actors in roles that are different from what the audience has come to expect from them. Jack Nicholson. Goin’ South, released in 1978, has elements of all of these, being the second film directed by Jack Nicholson, and starring him in the lead role as horse thief Henry Moon.
Moon is the run from the law, as horse rustling was a capital crime in Texas at the time. Riding his horse across the Rio Grande into Mexico, he finds himself safely across the border just as his horse faints, and the posse chasing after him is on the other side, with no authority in Mexico. Except they don’t even slow down for the river, and grab him and drag him back into U.S. soil anyway.
There are multiple layers of irony in an outlaw taking refuge behind the law and law enforcement flouting it to catch him.
Moon finds himself awaiting the gallows, but is saved at the last second by virtue of the town he’s been brought to. It’s only a short time after the Civil War, and many of the menfolk of the town died in battle. Thus a town ordinance has been passed that allows any man convicted a crime, short of murder, to have his sentence suspended if one of the land-owning women chooses to marry him. Henry’s salvation comes in the form of Julia Tate, played by Mary Steenburgen in her film debut. This isn’t some romantic “love at first sight” or “love will redeem the bad boy” thinking on her part, however; she’s a pragmatist, and she’s in a bind. The railroad, under manager Polty (Gerald H. Reynolds) is seizing her property in a few weeks under eminent domain, and she needs money to survive on and move to Philadelphia. Money she can only get if the mine on her property actually holds a vein of gold. A mine she intends her new husband to work in.
There aren’t a lot of surprises in the plot; we all know more-or-less how the events and their relationship is going to unfold. But that’s all right. Nicholson and Steenburgen have great chemistry together, always believable in both their tender moments and — most especially — in their frequent bickering. He’s crude, lazy, and a mostly unrepentant scoundrel; she’s refined, dedicated, and stand-offish even with the more genteel members of the town. It’s contrasted well with the relationship he has with his ex-lover and former member of his gang, Hermine (Veronica Cartwright), which is energetic but shown to be a relationship with no backbone.
Nicholson also plays off well against the town deputy, played by Christopher Lloyd. For people who are mostly familiar with Christopher Lloyd through the Back to the Future films — i.e., nearly everyone of my generation — he’s almost unrecognizable here, as he still has brown hair and is wearing a mustache. His facial expressions, however, are immediately recognizable, and are a highlight of his portrayal of Deputy Towfield. Towfield didn’t like Moon before, and he had designs on Julia before she decided to marry Moon, so he holds a particular grudge now. Moon, of course, has no qualms about pulling a few pranks on the hapless deputy.
Any prank that results in gunfire has arguably gone a step too far.
The downside of the casting in this film is that other than those four characters, there are several big actors who are given very little to do. Ed Begley Jr. plays Whitey Haber, another ordinance husband, but it’s a minor role with only a few lines. Danny DeVito plays one of Moon’s old gang, but he has even fewer lines and little screen time; without the credits telling you it’s DeVito, it’s possible to not recognize him at all simply because of how little time he is actually shown. John Belushi would be immediately recognizable, of course, but his role as Deputy Hector is a serious waste of his talents, as he has almost no lines and very little funny to do except to have his character laugh here and there. He does a great job, mind you, but it’s simply such a small role that it’s hardly worth mentioning; of course, DVD covers nowadays seem to give him second billing, simply because it is John Belushi. Some of those covers (and some websites) also state that this is his feature film debut as well as Steenburgen’s; if this was filmed before Animal House, it might be arguably true, but even then it’s a bit of a stretch, as Animal House was released to theatres three months ahead of Goin’ South. Still, if you’re a Belushi completist, this is one of the small number of films in his short-lived career. I just wish there was more of him in it.
How do you cast this guy and then hardly use him?
The film, in truth, could have used more comic antics, period. Despite Nicholson being at his most Nicholsony, there aren’t a lot of really good comic lines, and there are only a few laugh-out-loud gags. It’s still a reasonably entertaining film, just not a must-see comedy or anything like that. It doesn’t really have enough action to be a great western, either, and there are some slow points in the film, particular in the mines where it’s too dark to see and the film is relying on the dialogue to keep it interesting. It may be more realistic to not be able to see the scene, but there’s a reason that Hollywood usually breaks from reality on super-dark scenes: it’s just more interesting to see what’s going on.
But these flaws aside, it’s still a film that manages to be a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours. It’s not a thrilling western or a laugh-a-minute comedy, but it’s entertaining, and everybody turns in great performances, even if they don’t have much actual performing to do. In a way, my main criticism is that this film didn’t live up to its potential. Nicholson, Lloyd, and Belushi together should have been an absolute laugh riot; instead, this film just brings a moderately amused smile to my face. Still good. Just not great. And I was hoping for great.