The Last Picture Show (1972)

At one point in "The Last Picture Show", Lois Farrow turns to her daughter and begs her to leave the small town of Anarene, Texas. The town is "flat and empty" and Lois has spent her whole life trying to spice up the monotony. It's no surprise that there is nothing to do in the town, the opening shot of the movie shows Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) struggling with his truck on what appears to be the biggest street in the whole town. It's empty except for his car.
Anarene has one pool hall, one theater, and perhaps only one bar. "The Last Picture Show" traps its characters in this town as it traps its viewers into it. A more optimistic approach might see the quaint-ness and intermingling of the people thereof as a reflection of proximity of people and find something uplifting about that. I don't see it this way, from the opening shot of Sonny's sole car puttering down the street to the deep chill that the movie's more emotional moments take place during, there is a stillness that is almost stifling here; and this is not a movie with dull moments. The gossip alive in the movie thrives in the underbelly of small-town America. It's this kind of film that inspires works to come after it like "The Ice Storm" or "Blue Velvet". In fact, Peter Bogdanovich gives us the most coherent David Lynch style of film.
With all that said, you can imagine how pleasant it is to watch.
A film more concerned with "life" than a gripping plot, "The Last Picture Show" is a snapshot of a year in Anarene as characters grow up, become more mature, lose their virginities, and decide about their future. The three highschoolers that receive the most screentime are Sonny, Duane (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). As they grow older, we begin to realize there is something almost malicious about the story itself. It's a not so subtle "losing of innocence" story; but what it entails feels rather ordinary. There is gossip about people sleeping around, there is heartbreak when relationships end, and there is the misery of knowing that at one point it might all be taken away from you.
The movie is slow and steady, never rushing and never preaching. It doesn't build into anything grander like Kubrick or Lynch might be tempted to do. Instead, it relies on its characters being multi-dimensional and nuanced to bring its emotional impact to a crescendo. What is most shocking about this is how well it works. I felt drained by the end of the movie, hopelessly crushed, desolated, but somehow hopeful. As the protagonist, Sonny is allowed to have a quasi-happy ending even though he might not deserve it.
Perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment is how fragile everything seems and how aware the viewer is of this fragility but how unaware the characters are. The dread comes from us knowing the small-town life has its host of issues; but no one saying or doing anything about it.
I won't really go into what happens in the movie because it's not really the point of the film. The affair during the middle of the movie is one of the most famous in cinema, but it really shouldn't define the film because there's so much more going on here.
With all these gears turning, sometimes the plot devices seem excessive, like watching Jacy's sexual, voyeuristic debut, or a moment where the town's caretaker figure Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) tells us about his highschool sweetheart. People claim this is the high moment of the film, but it seems like more of the same.
Not everything in the movie works; but it does take the breath out of you.

Score: ★★★½

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