“Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in town,
Sometimes I get a great notion to jump in the river and drown.”
Sometimes there are things we just have to do. We don’t really know why, just we HAVE to. The voice in our head won’t let us go any other way. Call it pride or foolishness or being true to the better angel that leads you through. In the case of the Stamper family, it leads to conflict and loss.
In the new Blu-ray release of “Sometimes A Great Notion,” the film version of Ken Kesey’s novel, Paul Newman plays Hank Stamper, owner of a family-run logging operation in the Oregon woods. While a strike shuts down the other operators in town, Hank and his father Henry (Henry Fonda) do what they feel they HAVE to do, and decide to honor their contracts and continue logging. Needless to say, the townies who are going slowly broke are not impressed by their work ethic. Hank also clashes with his half-brother Leeland (Michael Sarrazin) whose return after years in The Big City brings a family secret to the surface, and threatens Hank’s marriage to Viv.
In his second film as director (not the first as the disc case claims), Newman explores the dynamics of a proud family who stubbornly fight to keep their independence, to do as they see fit, even when that independence carries a heavy cost. For much of the film, his grasp of the material is confident, especially in the mostly wordless sequences where the Stampers do their work in the woods, sawing and climbing and lifting and chopping. Newman expertly captures the muscular rhythms and family-business bonding of the dangerous, heavy work of cutting lumber. I really believed that these people knew their business, and that they were truly family.
The nature and complexity of patriarch Henry’s steely grip on his children, and their response to that grip, is more compelling, and more fully realized, than the conflict with the townies that occupies equal screentime. Not everything in John Gay’s screenplay works as well. The ramifications of the secret that Hank and Leeland share is too casually tossed aside, and the mutual attraction between Leeland and Viv seems underwritten.
In his role as Hank, Newman is his usual effortless, efficient self, paring down character to simple key gestures and vocal inflections. In a role that garnered him his only Oscar nomination, Richard Jaeckel is outstanding as Hank’s brother Joe Ben, a stalwart Christian that Hank seems to realize represents the best of the Stamper family. Jaeckel gives Joe Ben a lively smile and believable sense of joy in living, an energetic counter to the dour, go-screw-yourself outlook of Hank and Henry. The film finds a different, good-natured spirit when he is on screen. Lee Remick holds her own as Hank’s wife, but is just too pretty to be believable as a part of this rugged family.
And I hate to slag off a legend, but Henry Mancini provides a thumb-screw lesson on the power of music in film. His irritating score suffers a slick case of the country-cutes, playing like it belongs in a Burt Reynolds movie about airboats or stock cars or something. A truly, wonderfully wretched theme song sung by Charley Pride only adds to the musical misery.
Mention must be made of a final shot that is outrageous in its bleak hilarity, and puts Henry Fonda’s arm to a surprisingly rude use. It makes a memorable finish to a flawed but interesting film.
“Sometimes A Great Notion” is presented in Widescreen, with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The outdoor setting is vividly and beautifully filmed, but the indoor scenes are a little grainier. There is an option for English subtitles.
The audio track is DTS HD Master Audio in a mono configuration. The sound quality varies, and there are several noticeable problems in scenes filmed outside. There are no audio set-up options.
None, not even a trailer. And what’s up with that boring main menu, Shout Factory? This is Paul Newman we’re talking about here.
Director/star Paul Newman adapts Ken Kesey’s novel about an Oregon logging family with mixed but still intriguing results.