“All the King’s Men” is a new film based on the old Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren. The film is the melodramatic, archetypal tale about the nature of men and the world colored with shades of gray that they inhabit. Whenever a movie comes out based on a classic novel, there is the natural controversy about whether or not film can do novels justice, whether or not ideas can be successfully translated across mediums. I generally tend to disregard such arguments by mentally separating the two – I have always thought that even if a novel is better than the film meant to portray it, that fact alone does make the movie.
I will employ my medium separating technique again, because for those of you who have read the book (and if not, I recommend that you do so), you will surely come to the conclusion that novel is superior, and it is. However, that simple fact is not enough to discount the excellent performances of the cast, the gray and sepia toned shots of rural Louisiana, and the hairstylist who got Sean Penn’s hair to defy gravity for two hours.
“All the King’s Men” stars Jude Law as Jack Burden, a man who yearns to be carefree, and yet cannot escape the fate of his surname. His fate is sealed the day he meets Willie Stark, eccentrically performed by Sean Penn. Sipping an orange pop from two straws because his wife doesn’t favor drinking, Stark tells Burden, a newspaper man, about the schoolhouse he wants to build in the small town he comes from. (It would be more authentic if I used the word ‘hick’, for that is the diction of choice in the film and is said when referring to most of the people in it).
It is at this point that Burden becomes fascinated with this strange hick, who doesn’t drink and seems to genuinely want to build a new schoolhouse. Much like Nick Carraway from “The Great Gatsby,” Burden is the narrator, the reporter, the outsider who desperately want to be IN. However, in Fitzgerald’s world, it is the poor who gravitate to the glamorous lifestyles of the wealthy. In “All the King’s Men,” it is the wealthy who are reviled and attacked by Mr. Stark as he makes his way from small town treasurer to the governor of the State of Louisiana. And so, Jack Burden, ashamed of his wealthy and privileged upbringing, gravitates to Stark’s populist platform.
“All the King’s Men” is a movie about the potential of men to be good and to do good things. Willie Stark contends that those two aren’t mutually exclusive. “Men are conceived in sin, and born into corruption,” Sean Penn drawls, and the film’s most dramatic scenes arise from this stark view of the world. As governor of Louisiana, he exploits this culture of corruption by blackmailing his enemies (and his friends) into doing the good things he wants done (building schoolhouses, hospitals, roads, etc…) “All the King’s Men” raises questions about the value of idealism in what is an established culture of corruption.
Set to a soundtrack of melancholy piano and filmed in grays and sepias, it has the look and the sound of a movie that wants to reveal the truth about human nature, but is sorrowful to do so. Jude Law’s smug little grin usually bothers me, but in this film, I actually quite enjoyed his performance as secretly pensive Jack Burden. As for Sean Penn, Willie Stark is a hard role. It required him to speak in a ridiculous accent, wave his arms around in the air and have crazy hair. It was these three things that were perhaps the most distracting and most distasteful in the whole movie.