Main Street

[Christianity Today Movies; November 2011]

Deck: A dying small town is tempted to accept a stranger’s dangerous plan for growth.

Stars: 2

Cast: Orlando Bloom (Harris), Colin Firth (Gus Leroy), Patricia Clarkson (Willa), Ellen Burstyn (Georgiana)

Playwright Horton Foote (1916-2009) made the comment a few years back, “The people hardest on [my work] always say that not a lot is happening.” Oh, but what delectable nothing it is. Foote won Oscars for Tender Mercies (1983) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and was nominated for The Trip to Bountiful (1985)—all works of great tenderness and insight. (Let me recommend too the little-known 1918, which accumulates quietly and then unexpectedly provokes a painful compassion.) Many of his films also show a good grasp of what it is to be a person of faith, and how to persevere in prayer when things are hard.

Main Street will serve as Foote’s farewell, for he died in Spring 2009, shortly before the movie started filming. It’s the story of a North Carolina town that is dying—Main Street is a row of empty storefronts, and empty tobacco warehouses ring the perimeter.

Ellen Burstyn portrays Georgiana, elderly daughter of a one-time tobacco baron, who lives in faded splendor in the grand home her daddy left her, and worries about making ends meet. (Burstyn is extraordinary in this role, delivering extended speeches that require a whole array of emotions, and doing it beautifully. She herself is beautiful at 79, with no visible sign of face lift or makeup.) Thankfully, Georgiana is a sympathetic character rather than the face of Establishment Evil. There’s an interesting character-revealing moment when she says that the collapse of the tobacco market was taken by her father as “a curse put upon us for our sins;” not the sin of selling tobacco but the sin of pride, of putting his trust in money and power. “Every night the year that Papa died I would hear him in his room, asking God to forgive him for his sin of pride.”

But a stranger has come to town, a tall Texan named Gus Leroy, and offered cash to rent her warehouse. Colin Firth is a fine actor, but he’s taken an idiosyncratic approach to producing a Southern accent, depending largely on pulling his upper lip down and maintaining a horizontal lockjaw at all times. This approach does not succeed. (Southern accents are difficult; there is too wide a variety, and natives spot phonies instantly. Albert Finney is one of the few Englishmen who can produce an excellent southern accent; check out Big Fish.)

Georgiana is glad to rent Gus her warehouse, and waves off his attempt to tell her what he wants it for. When it emerges later that he has filled it with rows and rows of blazing yellow barrels of toxic waste, she—and, by extension, the whole town—faces a challenge.

Nobody likes toxic waste, but Gus makes a good case. It’s there, so why not think through how to handle it; problems equal opportunities. Since they built the treatment plant in Vernon, Texas—Gus’s hometown, population 800—there is no unemployment. The company even built Vernon a park and a community swimming pool. Working with the Environmental Service Corporation might bring this worn-out city new life. The mayor and city council are increasingly drawn to the idea. (Refreshingly, a black actor was cast in the role of this small southern town’s mayor.)

And that’s where everything comes to a halt, for an hour or more. Foote’s brilliant prior work aside, this time nothing really does happen. We glimpse other lives—a young woman with a big-city job in an affair with her boss, a young policeman who loves her and is working on a law degree—and the central circle expands, bringing in Georgiana’s daughter Willa, played by the exceedingly and enticingly deadpan Patricia Clarkson. And yet the plot is stuck in neutral, and a worried, droopy tone never varies.

As the empty minutes ticked by I began thinking we were being set up for something deeper. When the mayor asks Gus if his business deals in hazardous waste, he replies, “In a sense.” When the cop asks Willa what’s in the canisters, she replies, “Death.” So maybe this isn’t nuclear waste, but some unspecified and more ominous thing. Why are we told so often that each canister has a label bearing its contents? Is this to build suspense for the moment someone finally reads one of those labels, then goes screaming through the streets, “It’s PEeeeeeple!”

But no. When there’s just five minutes remaining on the clock there’s a sudden crisis and a sudden resolution, and that’s that. It’s a shame, given all the talent involved, and I wondered if the studio was concerned about the film all along. It was shot in Spring 2009, but not released till Fall 2011. A theatrical release was planned, but now it’s being shunted to DVD. Maybe a brief and quiet transit through public awareness was deemed the best course.

Coincidentally, a New York Times reporter, Alexandra Witchel, interviewed Foote while he was in the midst of writing this screenplay. (She says the 91-year-old Pulitzer winner addressed her, half his age, as “Ma’am.”) She wrote that, the night before the interview, “Foote jolted awake at 1:30 a.m., having solved the problematic ending that had plagued him the last three months.” He told her, “This lead character in the Durham screenplay is someone I’ve gotten very fond of. …And last night I found that one last facet of him, and I got so excited, I wanted to wake up somebody and tell them.”

I haven’t said this till now, but the dying small town in this film is called Durham, North Carolina. Horton told his interviewer that he had only been in Durham once, and what impressed him was the empty downtown and vacant tobacco warehouses: “It was like a ghost town to me.” The Durham in the movie is clearly a has-been, perhaps a point of bitter irony now to city fathers who courted the big-name production. On the contrary, Durham is a thriving city, home to Duke University; with equally-academic Chapel Hill and Raleigh, it forms a high-tech region that has been known, for 50 years already, as “the Research Triangle” (population 1.7 million).

Durham is not dead, and Durham is not Mayberry. Foote may well have seen a vacant downtown, but these days the downtown area is no longer a city’s center, commercially or even geographically. The sprawling, trendy-architecture mall in Durham describes itself as “centrally located along I-40.” There you’ll find all the geography-of-nowhere franchises: Abercrombie & Fitch, Rocky Mountain Chocolates, Restoration Hardware, Cheesecake Factory.

And the mall’s name? The conventional enclosed majority of it is called “The Streets at Southpoint.” There’s a newfangled section though, open to the air, that’s been built to look like an old-fashioned street of shops. That part is called “Main Street.”

Talk About It [3-5 Questions]

1. There seems to be an obvious parallel between the two deadly “crops” the warehouse has served, tobacco and nuclear waste, yet nothing is made of this connection. Why, do you think, was this obvious parallel not developed explicitly?

2. Bloggers and comment boxes are all over the map with this movie, politically. Some think it is a left-wing condemnation of big business, some think it is a right-wing celebration of forward-thinking business reviving small towns. Some see it as making a case for nuclear power, and others think it is exaggerating the danger of nuclear waste. Do you think a political bias is evident in the script?

3. Can you imagine a Christian praying every night that God would forgive him for his pride? Why do we not talk about the sin of pride much anymore, when it has historically been seen as the foundation of all sin? How does it intersect currently-popular values like self-esteem and pride in accomplishment? Was there a time recently when you think you indulged in a sin of pride?

The Family Corner.

Nothing overtly offensive. The film will be boring for the kids, but not shocking.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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