In the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, people's golf games were forever being interrupted by the annoying realities of war. In Holly Springs, conducting a rigorous homicide investigation is okay, as long as it doesn't interfere too much with the fishing.
Deputy Lester Boyle: He had nothing to do with it, alright? He's innocent. You can trust me on that one.
Eddie "The Expert" Pitts: And what makes you so sure of that, Lester?
Deputy Lester Boyle: Because I've fished with him.
Between 1969 and 1976 Robert Altman directed more first-class movies than any other American director has ever made in that amount of time. The result is that I keep going to see his pictures, even though some of the recent ones have sucked. This one doesn't suck even a little, in fact it's a hoot. Loose and funny and warm (Altman's movies started to go downhill when he started to show contempt for his characters), featuring some terrific performances.
This movie takes place in Holly Springs, a dozy little southern town where a sign in the liquor store proudly proclaims that, "on this site in 1897, nothing happened." Which seems to be true of most days in this century, too.
Everybody in Holly Springs knows everybody else. Everybody knows Cookie, who's well-off and eccentric, pining after her dead husband Buck in their big old house. Everybody known Willis, who looks after the house for her, and who likes to take a drink or two down at Theo's (almost as much as he likes fishing). Everybody knows that Cookie has two nieces, Camille, who's the local martinet of good taste and culture, and Cora, who's sweet but a bit dim.
Cookie can't stand Camille or Cora, but she is quite fond of Cora's daughter, Emma. Emma is Holly Springs' "bad girl," though most of the wickedness we see involved her extremely individual style of driving and parking. She's just arrived back in town in the van she lives in, with some facial bruises which are never explained.
Everybody knows about Cookie and Willis and Camille and Cora and Emma. And then one day Cookie is found dead of a gunshot wound and Willis is arrested. Like the 4077th MASH, Holly Springs is a very functional society which has evolved its own rules and systems, and even though the evidence compels the police to arrest Willis, nobody thinks he actually did it. In fact, some of the best scenes take place at the jail, where the door of Willis' cell is never closed (let alone locked).
Emma is furious, completely convinced that Willis is innocent, and she's somewhat frustrated that nobody pays much attention to her arguments, because they all think he's innocent, too. So, in solidarity, she moves into his cell with him, which is also convenient for her to conduct periodic fevered couplings with Jason, her former beau, who is now a deputy. Typically, they go to great lengths to hide what they're doing from Willis, who just lies on his bunk and smiles, not fooled for a minute.
Meanwhile, Camille and Cora move right into Cookie's house, cheerfully taking down all the yellow tape that marks it as a crime scene, as they prepare for the performance of "Salome" that the town church is putting on for Easter. Camille is running the entire production, of course, even to the extent of revising the text and giving herself a co-writing credit with Oscar Wilde.
This is pretty much Altman's manifesto against people who give a damn about what other people think, and it's great. And, as in "M*A*S*H," the good, cool, relaxed people way outnumber the weird, uptight, self-righteous people, which is a nice way of looking at things.
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Annie Rapp
Camille Dixon : Glenn Close
Cora Duvall : Julianne Moore
Willis Richland : Charles Dutton
Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt : Patricia Neal
Emma Duvall : Liv Tyler
Jason Brown : Chris O'Donnell
Manny Hood : Lyle Lovett
Lester Boyle : Ned Beatty
Otis Tucker : Courtney B. Vance
Jack Palmer : Donald Moffat
Billy Cox : Danny Darst
Eddie "The Expert" Pitts : Matt Malloy