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Who’ll Stop the Rain

(Karel Reisz, USA, 1978): “In a world where elephants are pursued by flying men, people are just naturally going to want to get high.” So goes the inciting rationalization of John Converse (Michael Moriarity) in Karel Reisz’s outrageously overlooked, terminally post-Nixonian Vietnam-noir Who’ll Stop the Rain. Converse is an atrocity-benumbed war correspondent who needs to find some reason — any reason — to justify the fact he’s just decided to ship a kilo of heroin stateside from Vietnam in the care of one Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte), a Merchant Marine vet who plays touch football in the Southeast Asian mud, practices tai chi on the steamer deck, and whom John once described to a friend as a psychopath. (“It’s an imprecise term,” responds John’s smack-prone wife Marge, who will find herself on the lam with Ray when John’s deal runs afoul of some free agent DEA thugs.) Not that much of reason is needed in this universe — based on co-screenwriter Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers — where the desire to get high is only one sign among many that the real homefront fallout from the war and everything it represents is an America where everybody has given up on everything but getting high. The sense of collective purpose, let alone of idealism, that may or may not have thrived during the ’60s, isn’t just as scorched as a Vietnamese village given the zippo by a fear-pumped Marine outfit, it’s left a huge sucking vacuum like a national chest wound. Individualism, rugged, heroic, desperate or psychopathic, is here the only reasonable thing that’s left, and it’s not doing anyone much good. As a New Hollywood-era noir, Rain is as bleak, heartbreaking and sincerely thrilling as any made during that golden era for unhappy endings, but it’s almost complete disappearance from the selective canonical history of the day (it’s not even mentioned in most lists of Vietnam-themed movies) suggests that Reisz’s movie, which was released the same year as the comparably more reassuring Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Go Tell the Spartans, was too barren even by 1978 standards. To one extent or another, each of those other movies had people in them who seemed to stand for a future worth waiting and holding out for. There is no horizon in Rain, and its devastating final image — of the Neitzschean jock and trauma-stricken existential warrior Ray lying dead on a California railroad track, his rifle and stash helping prop him up in an attitude that suggests a monument to those soldiers who fell after they came home — was perhaps too final for the movie’s good. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for Jimmy Carter’s national ‘malaise’ syndrome, Who’ll Stop the Rain posited the veteran’s return as a passage from jungle to desert, hell over there and here at ‘home’, and transplanted psychopathology. As embodied by Ray and the semi-official posse of sickos in deadly pursuit — Anthony Zerbe, Ray Sharkey and Richard Masur — the killing machine kicked into high gear over there is a wonder of exportable efficiency. Back home, it marches on until it drops somewhere on those endless tracks.

Even in the substandard DVD transfer which has been its only available version for decades, Rain is a movie of much more gravity and substance than can be fully expressed here. Not only as a searing account of national spiritual and psychic ruin, but as a ferociously effective neo-noir, a richly barbed comedy of escalating catastrophe, a pitch-perfect multiple-character study, an indication of what Nick Nolte was capable of before stardom narrowed his options, and a glimpse of what the deadly veteran might have been before Sylvester Stallone came along and domesticated the drifting psychopath as a hero for the Reagan era. (Fox Video)