Somehow you always know when you’re watching a work by Horton Foote, be it play or film. It may be what is absent that you first notice: noise, tirades, denunciations, sound and fury, dark nights of the soul. Part of a generation or so of playwrights—including Lillian Hellmann, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Edward Albee—given to drama brimming with anger, simmering resentments, buried secrets, and assorted other Sturm und Drang, Foote can startle with the very quietness and simplicity of his art.
Born in 1916 in Wharton, Texas, Foote is probably best known for the screenplays he wrote for “Tender Mercies” (1983) and “The Trip to Bountiful” (1985), and for which he won two of his three Academy Awards, the third being for the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen. He was primarily a playwright, however, and wrote copiously for live theatre as well as the so-called golden age of television. (In fact, “The Trip to Bountiful” began as a teleplay for the Goodyear Television Playhouse way back in 1953, starring silent screen star Lillian Gish, and recently ran successfully on Broadway with a largely black cast headed by Cicely Tyson.) Sometimes compared to Chekhov, Foote can be even more affecting. His special genius is for small-scale stories unfolding in domestic settings with deceptively simple dialogue and not a whole lot of action.
So it is with “Main Street,” an understated, underrated, and underappreciated little film from 2010, in which one can discern the skeleton of a play. Directed by John Doyle from Foote’s screenplay, it appears to be the author’s last work before his death in 2009. And a fine farewell it is, especially when considered against the template of the American theatre.
“Main Street” is set in contemporary Durham, North Carolina, and is about a dying tobacco town into which a stranger comes to offer what may or may not be a chance at revival through a new industry. The film opens with black-and-white archival footage of Durham in its heyday, with its bustling downtown, its busy tobacco factories, and its citizens—men, women, children cheerfully and purposefully going about the business of life. The screen shifts to stills of today, which despite being in color reveal only decay and emptiness in a shabby inner city.
Soon we’re introduced to characters whose lives seem to mirror the condition of their town. Miss Georgiana Carr is an elderly spinster who lives in a big house she can no longer afford but is too proud to let go of. It was built by her father who bought, sold, and auctioned tobacco when that weed brought flush times to Durham. Worried and frightened for the future, she relies upon her middle-aged niece, Willa Jenkins, who comes when she’s needed to lend support.
A second storyline concerns two young people in their mid-20s. Harris Parker, a local cop studying at night to be a lawyer, is tied to Durham because of his widowed mother, who sees him as “all I have” since his older brother, Pete, is away “wandering the world.” Harris’s situation is partly brightened by his love for his high-school sweetheart, Mary—pretty, spoiled by her doting mother and stepfather (her real father left when she was a baby), and now, alas, hankering for greener pastures and dating a successful lawyer at the Raleigh firm where she works as a secretary.
The opening scenes are melancholy yet hardly depressing. In minutes, you feel drawn into these characters’ lives, which despite restriction and limitation are suffused with admirable affection. You can see it in the boyish way Harris kisses his mother in lieu of arguing to stop her fretting over him. Or in the way Willa arrives, close to midnight, a jacket thrown over her nightgown, to allay the fears of her panicky “Auntie” and then settles down, tired but uncomplaining, to pass the night on the couch. This will not be a story about breaking away or severing ties as in so much American theatre, but instead about realizing the generative capacities of place, connectedness, and staying put.
To raise some money as she wavers over selling her home, Georgiana has leased her old tobacco warehouse to an outsider, Gus Leroy, who works for a company that manages the disposal of hazardous waste. He arrives brimming with energy and confidence to supervise the temporary storage of tightly-sealed canisters of waste and to convince the town authorities to let his company expand in Durham.
Here again we may be fooled. If the idea of hazardous-waste storage and disposal isn’t enough to raise red flags, the introduction of a stranger/salesman into a provincial town might be, especially since he arrives at night and tells his assistants not to answer questions. But this salesman turns out to be on the level, upright and forthright. He is proud of the necessary service his company provides, as well as its safety record, and is certain that it can bring renewal to Durham as it has to other smaller towns in the South. So persuasive is he that the town council—blacks and whites slogging together through chronic discouragement at their wilting city—eagerly votes to investigate building a plant in Durham.
Georgiana and Willa are at first horrified at what Mr. Leroy is storing in the warehouse, but his charismatic sincerity convinces them to let him go ahead with his plans. Georgiana brightens at the thought of a revitalization of downtown Durham. Even more, Willa, a disillusioned and somewhat disgruntled divorcée, gently lights up at Mr. Leroy’s masculine energy. “I was impressed,” she purrs softly to her aunt after hearing Gus’s pitch, as her flat-tired voice starts to take on a velvety Southern softness. Later she changes out of her plain clothes into a pretty dress.
A shadow reality begins to take shape. We’re seeing the other side of the tapestry, so to speak, of much American drama. When Gus comes to dinner at Georgiana’s house, with Willa in attendance, it looks for a moment like a happier “The Glass Menagerie,” without the bitterness and desolation and females left alone, adrift, and in despair. And in the film’s second storyline, Harris’s brother Pete, offstage, out of sight, “wandering the world,” could be “The Glass Menagerie”’s Tom—who at the end of that play informs the audience that he long ago left his desperate kinswomen behind—while Harris will be the son who stays.
When trouble comes, it comes more from nature than from any human perfidy. A heavy rain results in the trucks bringing additional canisters to Durham overturning. There are some injuries, evidently not fatal, and the canisters are scattered but do not break. As a cop on duty, Harris arrives at the scene of the accident and takes charge. Mary is with him. He was driving her to the airport on her way to leave Durham altogether—her would-be lawyer beau turns out to be married with children.
Everything is beautifully understated in Foote’s inimitable style, in which character emerges not in effusive self-revelations but in a few words of dialogue, or even between the lines. Willa’s disgruntlement with men can be gleaned from an almost off-handed remark. “He reminds me of my ex-husband,” she says with some indignation after her meeting Mr. Leroy, “thinking you’ll be delighted with whatever he does, no matter how outrageous.” But then she finds that she is delighted with him. And when Gus, also divorced, tells Willa that they will dispense with the Southern custom of prefacing their first names with Mr. and Miss in addressing each other, a little thrill of intimacy hisses on the screen, and we feel that this relationship is launched.
The one time there could be an angry spitfire confrontation—there are some of these in Foote’s work, but they are brief and seldom lead to any revelation—occurs earlier in the film, when Mary harshly berates Harris, playing out what must be a man’s worst nightmare: the woman he adores telling him flatly that he is not enough, no matter how hard he tries. She calls him a “loser” for staying in Durham, a “loser cop,” at $30,000 a year, adding that even his law studies will only make him a “loser lawyer” in such a depressed area. Southern man to a tee, Harris only retorts curtly, “Thanks a lot, Mary,” and strides away. She weeps bitterly at her cruelty and later seeks his forgiveness, which he readily gives, without responding to her taunts.
We may feel we are glimpsing a neglected America, the flyover people, as one of Foote’s actresses put it in an interview, a variation on Charles Murray’s Fishtown, perhaps, where opportunity seems scarce, lack seems ubiquitous, fathers leave or die when children are young, attempts at marriage end in divorce, and if there is advanced education it is only of the cheapest and least competitive kind.
But there are other, internal resources that people can utilize, and these are what Foote dramatizes. If it’s possible for catharsis to be gradual, it is here, minus the customary fireworks. Georgiana slowly loses her fear of letting go of the house, as her false pride dissolves and the right buyer appears, as if by “divine intervention.” On the night of the accident, Mary comes to appreciate Harris’s work as a local cop and realizes how real his love is for her, and hers for him, in contrast to her vague, desperate plans for leaving Durham.
While the night of rain has brought peace and resolution to some, ironically Gus is spooked. The company will investigate the accident, and his job may be at risk. He loses his earlier aplomb, suddenly fearful of accidents and their potential catastrophic consequences, and is thinking of leaving the business regardless of the investigation. But when Georgiana mentions divine intervention, something clicks. “Not by accident?” he murmurs, and it seems a dimension has opened up beyond human effort as the sun rises after the heavy rains. The film ends a little prematurely, and is perhaps too subtly written here even for Horton Foote, but that note of hopefulness at the end—that something good is always operative in the affairs of men, if they stay open to it—is what the movie gently extends to us. Whether or not the city decides to enter this new industry, or Gus continues in the work, the effect of having to confront something new has in itself been profound. 
The acting is simply extraordinary. Actors have got to love Horton Foote: Robert Duvall won the Academy Award as Best Actor for “Tender Mercies” and Geraldine Page won Best Actress for “The Trip to Bountiful.” The two male leads here, Harris and Gus, are played by Orlando Bloom and Colin Firth respectively. Like Leslie Howard portraying the Southern aristocrat Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” British actors seem to have an affinity for Southern characters.
Ellen Burstyn is the perfect Southern gentlewoman of a certain age, her face twisted in fear and shame, then glowing with newfound grace and joy. Patricia Clarkson is a wonder as Willa, transforming from a kind of wary, know-it-all modern female to a responsive woman. Even in smaller roles, the actors shine: very touching, for example, is the way Victoria Clark, as Mary’s mother, winces when she hears how her precious only daughter has been fooled by a man who showed interest in her.
Foote seems to say, in effect, that drama can happen without a domineering father, or a badly dysfunctional family, or a marriage from hell, or a dishonest businessman, or dark secrets of incest or lesbianism—the flamboyant elements in much landmark American theatre, in which embattled individuals struggle against larger, even malignant forces bent on destroying them. The problem may not be evil people, deceitful conmen, bullying tyrants, corrupt industrialists, and heartless corporations at all, but just life and its vicissitudes, full of hazards—and hazardous waste, for that matter—with plenty inherent in it to produce worry and fear. Life itself is streaked with danger and loss; the question is how the individual confronts it.
As Harris says in a brief voiceover that ends the film, “The future, uncertain at best, can be fearful or full of promise. It’s all in how you see it.” Such is the twist that Horton Foote makes on the American theatre of his era, and he does it so quietly that it can take a while to realize that you’ve been shown a whole new way of looking at life.
Carol Iannone is editor at large of Academic Questions.