4 March 2004 | davidals
John Sayles a genius? Look no further.
It's regularly noted that director John Sayles is a master at creating detailed characters; this film (like especially his earlier MATEWAN) proves his genius at capturing the oft-overlooked variety of American life: dialects, and the smallest (but most meaningful) moments of work, anger, tragedy, or sweetness. This skill was surely refined during his earlier years as a novelist, and - in maturity - makes his work (and this film in particular) far more human and gimmick-free than Amer-indie contemporaries like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch.
I first saw this when it was released, and was very impressed (it was the first Sayles film I'd seen), and after a much-belated second viewing, I'd say it's one of the great American films of the 90s. Sayles' feel for detail shows continually - the small, but continual bits of personal history revealed about all of the characters throughout; the intricacy of even incidental encounters (an afternoon of zydeco music, or the COOLEY HIGH reference that slips quickly between Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard) is stunning.
Evoking Robert Flaherty's LOUISIANA STORY, the boat-trip-to-Misere scene is particularly memorable, with well-deployed Cajun lore blending with very memorable cinematography (courtesy Roger Deakins, cinematographer for FARGO, KUNDUN, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION & SID AND NANCY, among other recent classics) to create one of the most unforgettable moments of Sayles' career.
As most of the primary characters are either outsiders, or are returning after long absences, the common problem of show-biz fake accents is avoided nicely - Sayles (and Deakins) manage to capture an image of rural Louisiana that is enveloping and authentic, while never forgetting the reality that accents will vary widely even in local areas. Thus the fact that many characters refuse to lay on the drawl - even as many others in the film nail the sound of rural Louisiana perfectly - only makes PASSION FISH stronger.
Overall this is a tale of growth and friendship that moves with the speed and emotions of life - none of it feels fake or forced, and though slow-to-start (another strength, though only seen as one by the film's end), PASSION FISH quietly develops into something unique and great. At every moment where this could've degenerated into movie-of-the-week sap, Sayles instead elegantly and confidently steers the film into DeSica (or Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck) territory: there's not a sour note to be seen here.