Before Tetro, before Apocalypse Now, before The Godfather, there was The Rain People, Francis Ford Coppola’s inspired attempt at a uniquely American version of the classic European art film. Clad in trappings of the nouvelle vague, the film tells the story of Natalie (Shirley Knight), an unhappy suburban housewife married to a horse’s arse named Vinny (Robert Modica, heard only in telephone voice-over). When Natalie discovers she is pregnant, the thought of raising a child with Vinny is so repulsive she jumps into her land-yacht station wagon and bolts for the Pennsylvania countryside.
Coppola goes all out for gritty realism here, and Natalie’s flight from the American middle class is anything but a peaceful Sunday drive. As the station wagon makes its way on glistening wet roads, we are bombarded by a cacophony of background noise; thumping windshield wipers, radio static and the surly rumble of passing trucks. Coppola quickly establishes the outside world as cold, wet and looming with menace. But it’s also rife with new, exciting possibilities for the confused and frightened Natalie.
One of those possibilities comes to fruition in the form of “Killer” Gannon (James Caan) a former college football star reduced to a plodding, childlike mentality by head injuries suffered on the gridiron. Gannon hitches a ride with Natalie one sunny afternoon, and while she is initially attracted to the muscular stranger, she soon realizes that Gannon’s naïve helplessness saddles her with the exact type of responsibility she’s been fleeing.
The Rain People is very much a film in tune with its times. The sexual revolution and the wholesale challenging of authority that prevailed in the 1960s provide driving thematic currents. One could make a case that the film is a distaff version of Easy Rider and, indeed, the two movies share a wealth of production elements and subtext. Both are in essence road movies about a search for identity, but while Dennis Hopper’s heroes are fleeing a drug culture that’s both exhilarating and oppressive, Natalie’s demons - the fleeting notions and expectations of modern life – are much more complex and ultimately inescapable.
Natalie and Killer make their tense way to Nebraska, where Caan gets a job at a decrepit chicken ranch and Knight gains the attentions of sleazeball motorcycle cop (Robert Duvall) who’s not opposed to mixing law enforcement with a little whoopee. Duvall’s abusive relationship with his young daughter (Marya Zimmet) and Caan’s mishaps at the ranch bring Natalie’s maternal instincts to the fore, along with a sudden awareness that the world offers no free and easy refuge from the needs and demands of others. Natalie’s odyssey was doomed to fail. She’s been searching for something that doesn’t exist.