When Warren Oates leaves a certain kind of movie, you notice. You miss him. You feel a sense of longing, the way you feel about a character actually dying in film or literature too soon like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, or, worse, Josh Brolin never returning in No Country For Old Men. With Brolin, we are ill prepared for this loss and find ourselves processing his absence while watching the rest of the movie (I, did, anyway). For a delusional time we even wonder if Josh Brolin is ever going to come back. He’s killed off screen. Maybe something else happened? Maybe? Nope. He never returns. He’s dead. Warren Oates, in Dixie Dynamite, does return, thank god (I am not ruining anything here). He’s not dead. And he’s only gone for about fifteen minutes. But even in that short amount of time, you feel it, and you just want him there. And you begin to worry. Where the hell are you Warren Oates?
Well, we know where he is, sort of, but we start pondering just what else is he doing out there, out of camera frame, out of the town he already feels offset from (almost from another movie… did he go to back to that other movie he was in?). And, so, the longing begins to make sense. The plot picks up when he leaves (strangely, for we miss him), though the acting sags a little without his presence, but even that makes a weird sense too. As if people can’t act quite as natural without Warren Oates around. Something. Though there are legitimate reasons for all of the chaos to ensue during his leave, we start to even read more into the reasons for his departing, some kind of mysterious alternative off-screen sequence of events – like some other story untold or a Faulknerian stream of consciousness thought reflection that we’ll hear about later. (“If you could just ravel out into time. That would be nice. It would be nice if you could just ravel out into time.”) That’s how good he is. I actually thought of William Faulkner while watching Warren Oates in Dixie Dynamite.
Oates, that charm, that devilish grin, those soulful eyes, that crinkly smile, that mouth full of fantastic teeth, that rough and ready sex appeal, that sweetness, that head-in-a-sack bloody romanticism and vengeance, that face – that face of “two miles of country road” – he lifted up every movie he appeared in and, I swear, there is not one bad performance in that man. I’ve not seen one yet, and I don’t think I ever will.
And though Dixie Dynamite (directed by Lee Frost, who made The Thing With Two Heads and The Black Gestapo, as well as co-writing, with Wes Bishop, Jack Starett’s excellent Oates and Fonda picture, Race With the Devil) does not rank up there with Two-Lane Blacktop, The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 92 in the Shade, Cockfighter, The Shooting, The Hired Hand and too many more to list, Oates’ presence boosts the picture so much that, when he says he’s gonna be gone for five to eight weeks, even in compressed movie time, we feel like he’s really gone for five to eight weeks.
During those weeks, the female leads take charge, and they amplify their role of avengers, interestingly, when the man takes off. That’s the appealing Dixie (Jane Anne Johnstone ) and Patsy (Kathy McHaley), two moonshiner daughters who seem mere eye candy at first (all sexy Daisy Duke cut offs before The Dukes of Hazard, open blouses, platforms and soft cotton dresses) but become much more once their beloved daddy is killed by a police officer. A bad police officer. They turn to their friend Mack (Oates) for solace and support and he is by their side – totally platonically, which almost seems disappointing (but, again, is something going on we’re not seeing?), but it’s sweet and refreshing, really. These women put up with enough, including the same police officer sexually assaulting Dixie. They’re sexy as hell but it’s almost like they don’t have time to mess around. They can’t find work, they lose their daddy’s land and farm to a wealthy local jerk at the service of a shifty, sweaty bank president (everybody in this movie is sweaty, except for Dixie, Patsy and Mack, who understand sensible attire in the heat, meaning, very little or shirtless, as Mack is presented) and… they say, screw this. Let’s blow this town up. (There is dynamite. The title does not disappoint.) And, making the film even more compelling (and relevant), they’re really sticking it to the corrupt law enforcement, saying, at one point: “To kill someone safe here you gotta be wearing a badge.”
But back to leaving. Oates rides off on the motorbike he taught the women to power (by then they’re already scheming, he has no idea, we don’t really either but we’ll learn quickly) and the one he raced and earned 100 bucks in winnings (in real life Steve McQueen, not working on a film at the time, did the motocross racing for Oates, just because he wanted to – how’s that for another off-screen side story?) So, when Oates returns after his wandering of employ, he staggers into a bar and notices Dixie and Patsy’s “Wanted” posters plastered on the walls. (They have really nice posters. I would want one of these posters should I be “Wanted”) understandably, he barks the question in his very Warren Oates way: “What the hell is going on around here, Jack?” It’s an amusing scene; the look of recognition coming over Oates’ face is so perfectly timed, from laughing inebriate to sobered up vexation. An actor without his considerable gifts could have played it hammy. Not with Oates. He’s both believably upset and hilarious (“I may be drunk but I’m not insane!”) And he’s been gone for over five weeks. For god’s sake, this is what happens when he returns? What picture has he been in with these girls? It’s almost like he’s been dreaming in his own movie. He’s angry with Dixie and Patsy for wreaking havoc on the town, and when he finds them camped out in their hideout he continues his hollering: “I bust my tail for five and a half weeks trying to make enough money to get us moved out of here and I come home and what do I find out? You two are hunted criminals! What do you make about that?”
Well, see. What do we make of that? He needed to leave. As much as we missed him, this needed to happen because we needed to see Warren Oates yelling. One of the great pleasures of cinema is an apoplectic Warren Oates. And we needed to see the beginning of Dixie and Patsy’s rebellion. This may be called hicksploitation, but as often in that genre, there’s a lot of unrest and distrust of power, based on the reality of desperation, poverty, feeling used, many things, and so, this is a trio of people working hard and losing their lives. They need to take charge – all of them. What makes Dixie Dynamite far more interesting and pleasurable is that Oates, as ornery as he is at that moment, will come to see their side. Fast. He already understands their plight, but the money isn’t bad either. When they sweeten the deal by cutting him in, learning he could make a quarter of a million, he says, “Well, a little danger adds salt to a man’s life I reckon. What’s for supper?”
Why does this line work? Because when Warren Oates ends a line with “what’s for supper,” that’s a fantastic line. And why he’s needed. And why he’s missed. And why he’s missed in movies now.
Dixie Dynamite screens November 1 at the New Beverly.