Movies have had a difficult time justifying their own existence, never mind their own publicity, these past weeks, but here may be what the commonweal is craving: a gentle, Stephen King-penned pulperetta that bleeds openly for suffering, lost innocence, and the American childhood. Not quite the fastidiously contrived mega-fable that Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile were, Hearts in Atlantis revolves around an empty macguffin and climaxes with a shrug. But pulsing under the clichés and the stories' quaint circularity is King's own evolution from horror maven to neo-Ray Bradbury. Over the last few decades, King has become America's preeminent folk writer, swapping supernatural jim-jams for the aching tableau of damaged but fearless kids, irresponsible parents, brutal backwaters, alcoholic shrapnel, and random tragedy, all of it frequently galvanized (but never extinguished) by paranormal miracles.
King's schoolyard moralism and lightly sketched characters can be irritating, but his bruised sentimentality looks almost original in contemporary Hollywood. Scott Hicks nabs King's porch-sitting eloquence without hyperextending Hearts in Atlantis to Darabontian length. A mild mixture of The Dead Zone, It, and Stand by Me, Hearts has a small canvas: Mysterious stranger Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) comes to a dirt-poor, early-'60s Maine town and rents a room above Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin), an honest, fatherless 11-year-old with a distracted mother (Hope Davis). Brautigan hires the boy to read him the news and to watch the neighborhood for suspicious characters"low men" in hats whose cars "cast long shadows." As Bobby soon discovers, Brautigan is clairvoyant and on the run from unspecified forces.
Although King is reliable for his tidy end-tying, the filmmakers leave much of the narrative dangling, only suggesting that Brautigan's nemesis might be the CIA, bent on using him to fight Communism. Hicks musters little of Darabont's lowdown grace, depending too much on that dreadful, digital-slo-mo "emphasis" effect overused by every goddamn movie from Gladiator to Glitter. Hearts has its stereotypesthe requisite town bully, so often an agent of surprising savagery in King, is here a smirking closet queen. But the heartfelt use of extrasensory events as metaphors for a child's grasp of adult mysteries has a poetry to it, and the unblinking sympathy for kids struggling with evil and with the strange frequencies of prepubescent passion can, if your defenses are down, lay you out.
Parental anxietya common yet rarely interrogated Hollywood theme since Steven Spielberg realized, in E.T., that Richard Dreyfuss abandoning his kids in Close Encounters wasn't quite a happy endingis drummed up with mercenary bloodlust in Don't Say a Word. Novelist Andrew Klavan's suspenser pivots on homicidal bank robbers (led by squinty Brit Sean Bean) kidnapping the too-cute daughter of a New York psychiatrist (Michael Douglas) so as to compel him to crash-treat a raving schizo (Brittany Murphy, suggesting Courtney Love in an Exorcist sequel) and uncover a single ruby stolen a decade before. Director Gary Fleder's idea of an action scene is 95 percent blurry close-ups, and the villains' surveillance expenditures would seem to render their scheme moot. But as an odyssey of paternal qualm, Fleder's forgettable thriller has a convincing edge, and Douglas remains unchallenged as Hollywood's most tremulous and disquieting dad-under-pressure.
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