David Carradine in Sonny Boy

Sonny Boy

David Carradine wears a dress and nobody says a word about it for the duration of Sonny Boy, a low-budget thriller set in a timeless Panavision desert where the preferred modes of transportation are dirt bikes and dusty pickup trucks. It eschews mainstream cultural signifiers–the one glaring exception is the blonde with tousled music-video hair and ridiculous outfits straight out of Desperately Seeking Susan–and instead dedicates itself to world-building, making its arid small-town environment a microcosm for the cold world outside. So complete is Sonny Boy‘s conception of a cruel universe in miniature that it comes with a downbeat theme song written and performed, right there on screen, by Carradine himself. (A lyric from said song* is engraved, I kid you not, on Carradine’s tombstone.) Carradine is the big name, but the whole cast is better than it needs to be, and that makes a difference. They add a recognizably human element to an otherwise demented scenario and, even more importantly, they keep a film that sometimes feels almost like outsider art from amplifying its self-conscious idiosyncrasies to the point of out-and-out parody.

Carradine and Paul L. Smith (known mainly for roles inMidnight Express and Popeye) are Pearl and Slue, a childless couple living in rural New Mexico, where Slue is a kingpin among small-time criminals. When Slue’s henchman Weasel (Brad Dourif) delivers a stolen car with an infant hidden inside, Pearl insists that she and Slue become its adoptive parents. She’s not doing the kid a favor: Slue’s a nasty piece of work who locks the boy up, cuts out his tongue, and raises him, under continuous threat of torture, to be his enforcer–the devoted offspring who’ll sic his daddy’s enemies like a mad dog because he doesn’t know any way to behave but to obey. Tensions rise after Sonny Boy (Michael Griffin as an adult) meets the local manic pixie dream girl, Rose (Alexandra Powers), and feels the stirrings of a different kind of love–and as the locals figure out that Sonny Boy has been killing and eating the townspeople.

Among other things, Sonny Boy is a Frankenstein riff–all that’s missing from the scenes where the vengeful locals advance on Slue’s homestead are the torches and pitchforks–but Griffin’s vulnerable, frequently shirtless hunk of a man-child owes as much to Rocky Horror as to the classic Frankenstein stories. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Sonny Boy remains sympathetic throughout the film, partly because we know he didn’t choose to be raised like this, but also because we don’t really see him kill anyone; we see the aftermath, when he is crouching like an animal, covered in blood and looking bewildered and embarrassed. (It’s never quite clear why the mountainous Slue needs Sonny Boy to do his dirty work; certainly he could get more predictable results on his own.) Sonny Boy’s eventual redemption and rebirth is clued pretty heavily in the script, which has him kill a priest in his church, then naively embrace the stolen crucifix. Later, he emerges intact after a roaring fire, the phoenix reborn from the ashes of his adoptive father’s stolen loot.

No, Sonny’s parents are the bad guys. Slue is a monster, of course, and Smith imbues him with a corpulent malevolence. When he narrows his gaze, he’s a veritable Gandolfini of the desert. But Pearl is culpable, too. It’s hard to triangulate the picture’s feelings about Pearl, since it at first seems to mock her gender dysphoria with the suggestion that she is foolish for yearning to mother Sonny in ways that she is neither biologically nor psychologically capable of. (In one scene, she tries to feed the baby from a prosthetic breast full of milk, but Slue snatches the infant away, humiliating her; a moment later, he’s seen painting a surrealist desert landscape featuring a giant head gazing skyward, its mouth open to catch a single drop of milk from a tit floating overhead.) Pearl is eventually allowed to become a badass in her own right, ably proving her love for Sonny by taking up arms in his defense–the shot of Carradine in drag leaping through a broken window, rifle in one fist, pistol in another, and ready to take on all comers, may not be a giant leap forward for trans acceptance, but it is definitely a show-stopper. In fact, the action climax is surprisingly stirring. It stands as a clear precursor to Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, which similarly manipulates its audience into taking a genuine rooting interest in some truly terrible protagonists.

Ironically, for all its surface sensationalism, Sonny Boy is weakened by its seriousness of purpose. Screenwriter Graeme Whifler and director Robert Martin Carroll never spoke to each other (Carroll claims the producers threatened to fire him if he made contact), yet both of them were genuinely invested in the material, just in different ways. While Whifler’s script explored the sexual awakening of Sonny Boy in somewhat florid detail, shaping him as a panty-sniffing primitive who learns about sex by watching cats mate and stalking high-school girls, Carroll remakes him as more of a tragic hero, complete with quasi-poetic voiceovers and an ambiguously happy ending. It’s interesting to imagine the truly unnerving movie that might have been had Carroll erred on the side of a full psychosexual freak-out rather than aiming for a degree of respectability. Still,Sonny Boy vividly depicts a reprehensible cycle of violence driven by child abuse, and ably evokes the disquieting way the most pernicious people in your life can still feel like family.

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THE BLU-RAY DISC
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release restores the picture to some kind of glory, presenting a new HD transfer of an unrated cut (the shorter theatrical-release version was rated R) from a master presumably provided by MGM. It’s doubtful that Sonny Boy ever looked great, but it looks pretty good here. Colour balance is natural and appealing with appropriate saturation and contrast, and dynamic range is adequate to the source material, with plenty of detail visible in the shadows. The grain layer is soft and unobtrusive, and while digital noise reduction may have taken a tiny bit of zip out of the image, there are no egregious faults. Video bandwidth has been budgeted at around 28 Mbps; I didn’t notice any compression artifacts at normal playback speed. The Dolby Stereo-encoded 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is similarly clean and unflashy, featuring the usual directionality in the music and effects tracks–as well as the expected limitations in dynamics for pre-digital film soundtracks.

A two-and-a-half-minute trailer, scored only with Carradine’s theme song, represents the movie remarkably well despite an emphasis on its most garish and violent imagery. It’s the two filmmaker commentary tracks, however, that help make Sonny Boy worth the price of a Blu-ray. Director Robert Martin Carroll and his wife, actress Dalene Young, who appears in a small role in the film and apparently helped Carroll with rewrites, are on the first track, discussing the challenges of making the picture, such as frequent arguments with producers over the film’s direction. Carroll remembers that the production was budgeted at $2.8 million, but claims his line producer informed him that less than $2 million was actually spent, suggesting some fiscal chicanery was going on. He gripes about being denied gear like full-sized camera cranes and stabilizers, then tsk-tsks over his bosses’ desire for more “sex stuff” in the film. (Carroll explains, “I didn’t want to make it too graphic,” and insists, “It’s a very moral film.”) He also blames the producers for not spending the money to hire Ry Cooder as composer, which seems to overestimate either the prestige of being associated with Sonny Boy or the amount of free time Cooder had in the late-1980s, and he gripes that editor Claudio Cutry smoked too many cigars in the cutting room. He also identifies scenes that he didn’t shoot, that he deleted during the edit, or that made their way into the film anyway, over his objections.

The second yakker, hosted by entertainment journalist Matthew Chernov, features Sonny Boy screenwriter Graeme Whifler and, boy, does Whifler not like how this movie turned out. “There was so much joyful crudity in the script that was taken out for the movie,” he says. “It’s kind of unfortunate.” Nor does he care for what was added. He correctly calls out the character of Rose–who barely appears in Whifler’s screenplay but in Carroll’s version personifies The Love of a Good Woman–as “horrible,” “inane,” and “dumb.” He calls Sonny’s rewritten V.O. “pedestrian and stupid” and says Griffin portrays him as “a bad-acting, mopey lost dog.” He slams Smith, saying he was too rotund to be menacing. And while he praises Carradine’s performance, he pointedly observes that it needed better direction. For some reason, he reserves special vituperation for the score: “The music in this movie sucks. It’s just the worst music I think I’ve ever seen (sic) in a movie. But David Carradine, gotta give him credit, he’s singing–but oh my god.” It’s not so much that Whifler’s appraisals are objectively wrong, but more that he’s revealing the burden of the enormous chip he’s carried on his shoulder for so many years.

You have to wonder what would’ve happened if Scream Factory had gotten Whifler and Carroll in the same room together–a shouting match? Fisticuffs? Shared tears of reconciliation?–but their separate commentaries reveal a near perfect yin and yang of creative frustration. Kudos to parent company Shout!, at least, for going the extra mile and including Whifler’s original first-draft script as a BD-ROM special feature. If you have a BD drive on your computer, you can drag the document over in PDF form and peruse it at your leisure. Whatever else its merits,Sonny Boy now has added value as an object lesson in adaptation: what happens when a writer’s very peculiar vision meets a director’s best intentions on a cramped budget and morphs into something with which nobody is entirely happy.

*I may as well mention that at some point while working on this review I was moved to transcribe the song’s lyrics. Don’t know why. Here they are.

I’m lookin for a place
Where the dogs don’t bite
The children don’t cry
And everything always goes just right
And brothers don’t fight

Maybe it’s just over that hill
And maybe it ain’t
Maybe there’s gold at the end of this rainbow
And maybe it’s just paint

Maybe it’s just over a hill up ahead
And maybe it ain’t
Maybe there’s gold at the end of this rainbow
And maybe it’s just paint and maybe it ain’t

I was drivin for a time
Where the sun always shines
And all night long
That girl is always mine
Just her and me, we don’t need the wine

Maybe it’s just over a hill down the line
And maybe it ain’t
Maybe there’s gold at the end of this rainbow
And maybe it’s just paint and maybe it ain’t

Looking at these, I thought to myself (for some reason), “Wouldn’t it be wild if there were a hidden message encoded in the lyrics?” And then I saw it.

Take the first letter of each line of the chorus. You know what it spells?

That’s right: MAMA.

Now maybe that’s just a coincidence. And maybe it ain’t.

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