Mitchum gives a typical laid-back performance as a loving father and a ruthless murderer. He really cares about passing on his value to his three sons. "Judge not, lest you be judged yourself. That's in the Bible." He's given better performances, as in "Farewell, My Lovely," but at least he's not drunk, as he was in "Anzio." It begins in an effortless manner, with Mitchum and a sidekick, Stuart Margolin, as a couple of inmates in a Western prison, both doing a stretch for murder. They enlist the help of the three teenaged boys, David Spader, Eric Stoltz, and Lance Kerwin, in a non-violent escape from the slams. Now they're all out on the road, five of them, and Spader is the least anxious to continue. But Mitchum commands their respect. His goal is to reach a shack on an abandoned rail spur, steal the hand car, and work their way across the Mexican border.
Despite the leisurely beginning, this is already beginning to sound weird. Roll a railroad hand car into Mexico? But it does sound like the sort of balmy plan an unstable personality might dream up. This is based on a true story. Usually that doesn't mean much but it requires the director and the screenwriter to stick somewhat closely to historical fact. For example, it couldn't be "based on a true story" if they turned Mitchum into a cross-dresser or something. Since it does stick to facts, the five fugitives run into obstacles not usually encountered in fictional films. They reach the railroad spur all right, but the tracks have been neglected over the years and are unusable.
With Mitchum striding confidently around, oozing reassurance that everything is hunky-dory, they set out for the house of Margolin's reluctant girl friend but their car breaks down in the desert and they must hijack another passing vehicle. In an very tense and nicely directed scene, Mitchum orders everyone off on a side road to switch cars. But it's unclear what he and Margolin have in mind for the innocent passenger -- a man, his wife and baby, and a young girl. Clearly they pose no danger but Mitchum's intentions are problematic. "Dad's acting weird," remarks one of the kids. Then the four terrified passengers are executed by shotgun, for no particular reason. No gore is shown. None is needed.
There's a gap in continuity after this incident. We're suddenly at Margolin's girl friend's single-wide trashy mobile home, the sort of cheap place in which its easy to kick down the shabby and ill-fitting doors. It's a lot like mine. Margolis' girl friend is Salome Gens, a convincing actress. She doesn't want any trouble but if she doesn't cooperate, something might happen to her grandchildren. Again, without adumbration, the sheriff's office has determined somehow that the gang is holding up at Gens' house and they surround it, managing to rescue Gens and her kids but finding the place otherwise empty.
Mitchum does a B Plus job of capturing the psychopath's charm and his moral idiocy. I'm not sure that Mitchum quite KNOWS that he's doing it, but he does do it. Lie convincingly. Appeal to principal though you have none yourself. Never worry about tomorrow. When things go wrong, blame someone else. He's just blown away four people and Gens has informed the police, who set a trap for him. He avoids the trap but is angry that he was betrayed. "You see how rotten some people are? You can't trust anybody anymore." That's a multiple murderer talking about rotten people.
I'd like to emphasize how efficiently psychopaths can scan you. I interviewed one in a Minnesota clinic who had been charged multiple times for forging a truck driver's license. He was persuasive in his indignation. "The government has no right to take a man's job away from him." There's a shoot out at the end.
The most interesting features of the film are its presentation of two old-fashioned psychopaths and it's emphasis on family dynamics. The kids love Mitchum, and one of them persists in his filial loyalty even when it becomes clearer that Mitchum sends two of them on errands but always keeps one of his kids close by, the unspoken threat being that he will murder the remaining son if the other two desert him.
The kids have no acting chops, but Mitchum, Margolis, and Gens carry the film well enough to keep it gripping.