Published October 1, 1997
The Locusts, written and directed by John Patrick Kelley, is a tedious Freudian melodrama which, like so much else that comes out of Hollywood these days, bends every effort to convince us of the awful secrets buried beneath those smiling, happy-families exteriors of the 1950s. Such a belief in the real hideousness of apparent domestic tranquility is itself, paradoxically, a product of the 40s and 50s. The granddaddy of all the Freudian paradigm movies could be said to be Ronald Reagan’s greatest hit, King’s Row, from 1941. It is a great picture, but since that time, if there has ever been a Hollywood screenwriter or director who has questioned for one single moment the ironclad orthodoxy it promoted, that sexual repression is the source of all human evil, I haven’t heard about it. So it might be hard to tell if the camera’s briefly lingering over an old billboard showing Reagan advertising Chesterfield cigarettes is a tribute to that film or just the usual kind of Hollywood politics—a kind of in joke for those whose loathing for Reagan runs as deep and is as hard to repress as the sexual instinct.
Vince Vaughn plays a mysterious drifter called Clay Hewitt who hitchhikes into the town of Sealey, Kansas, one hot summer’s day looking for work. He gets into a barroom fight with a loudmouth boor over a pretty and flirtatious girl called Kitty (Ashley Judd). Soon Kitty is Clay’s girlfriend and Clay has got a job working in the feedlot of a mysterious widow woman called Delilah Ashford Potts (Kate Capshaw). Does the name tip you off to anything about her? If not, Mr Kelley has made very sure that a lot of other things do, even down to her punishing her despised, beaten-down son, Flyboy (Jeremy Davies)—who has been unbalanced since the age of 13 when his father committed suicide after catching Delilah in an adulterous act—by castrating his prize bull.
Clay takes Flyboy under his wing, educates him in the ways of sex with girls (among the movie’s many anachronisms is the assumption that Kansas farm girls in 1960 would be as easily cooperative in the nurturing of sexual manhood as they are depicted as being here) and in his own idea of manhood, which is a very convenient one: “A man becomes a man when he realizes that he’s one. . .no matter what anyone else says.” Flyboy, not surprisingly, realizes that he is a man and is about to leave the ancestral acres and his horrible witch of a mother along with Clay when mom returns home with the news that she has discovered Clay’s dark secret—i.e. that he is on the run from a (naturally false) rape and murder charge. She uses the information to try to blackmail Clay into sex with her and, thus, even further trauma for Flyboy.
But the point isn’t really anything to do with the pathetic Flyboy. It isn’t even to do with the classic bitch-goddess Delilah. No, see if you can guess. It’s about our old pal the patriarchy! It seems that mommy is only a bitch goddess and the poster-girl for sexual guilt because she was f***** up in her turn (as Philip Larkin says) by granddaddy, a hero of the Spanish American War who welcomed his men to Cuba with the words: “Nobody gets out of here in one piece.” These words were later adopted, rather comically, as his motto and inscribed on the portrait hanging portentously in Delilah’s living room, where it presides over the predictably tragic ending. So much for America’s glorious advent as an imperial power! Those Rough Riders should have been making love, not war, and ridding themselves of their crippling repressions. So instead of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill, we can put in our national iconography the image of Clay and Kitty driving off into the sunset in her Ford pickup. Somehow it just doesn’t seem the same.