This article appeared in the August 11, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

The Rain People (Francis Ford Coppola, 1969)

When pregnant Long Island housewife Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight) embarks on a cross-country road trip to nowhere in particular, she’s not burning rubber in a supercharged metaphor-on-wheels; she takes the family station wagon. She calls her husband often from roadside phone booths, but her explanations are as confused as he is. She’s not out to find herself, or the real America. She merely observes that her days used to be her own, and now they belong to her spouse, and she doesn’t want to bring a child into a domestic situation she views as a comfortable trap.

Francis Ford Coppola’s intimate, semi-improvised character study The Rain People was adapted from his short story “Echoes,” about three women who leave their husbands. Here, only Natalie remains, and as played by Knight in what ought to be regarded as one of the era’s key performances, she describes herself as “irresponsible, cruel, and aimless.” Those qualities manifest in her treatment of “Killer” Kilgannon (James Caan), a onetime football star who incurred brain damage on the field, and who joins her on the road with nothing but an envelope full of cash and a vague job offer in West Virginia. Their relationship evolves into a Nixon-era retread of George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, with Natalie vacillating between grudging protectiveness and acrimony so harsh as to give credence to her misgivings about parenthood. The literary analogy crystallizes when Killer frees the rabbits and chicks at a dingy midwestern zoo where Natalie has abandoned him.

Caan, three years before his antithetically hotheaded role in Coppola’s The Godfather—which clinched his stardom and that of Robert Duvall, seen here as a macho highway patrolman—deserves ample credit for avoiding holy-fool bathos, even when encumbered with the film’s titular symbolism (people made of rain disappear when they cry, Killer says; like himself and Natalie, they’re too sensitive for this world). Evincing no tics or condescension, the late actor plays Killer (his own boyhood nickname) as a man who does what he’s told because “it’s easy,” gives his friendship not wisely but too well, and retains a core of self-awareness (“I always know what I’m saying”). Knight, preceding more celebrated ’70s drifters like Barbara Loden in Wanda and Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, dares to make capriciousness and pique the top notes of Natalie’s character; she often refers to herself in the third person, suggesting either a dissociated nature or a mechanism of self-absolution. On a journey heightened by authentic location footage and fragmented flashbacks, Knight’s heroine is that uniquely New Hollywood creature: most relatable at her most expressly off-putting.

Steven Mears is the copy editor for Field of Vision’s online journal Field Notes and for Film Comment magazine, as well as a frequent contributor to Film Comment, Metrograph’s Journal, Bloodvine, and other publications.