For connoisseurs of twisted families, Anthology Film Archives has picked up a sassy sleeper. Adapted by Michael Almereyda from Mary Robinson’s novel “Oh!”, “Twister” takes place in Dorothy’s Kansas and has a tornado at something like the narrative epicenter. But inside the Eugene Cleveland (Harry Dean Stanton) household, tornadoes are business as usual. The outside world comes and goes, without altering the controlled chaos of this anguished extended family.
Daddy brings home a girlfriend (Lois Chiles), known as Miss Virginia on her TV Sunday school show, “Wonderbox.” College student Howdy (Crispen Glover) decides to marry his new girlfriend, even though she seems impervious to his charms or dementia. Chris (Dylan McDermott), the old boyfriend of 24-year-old Maureen (Suzy Amis), returns from a Canadian sojourn to rescue her and their eight-year-old, Violet (Lindsay Christman), from their “loony bin” of a mansion. “I’m the only one who can save you! Your whole family’s insane!” Lola, the family’s young cook and housekeeper is weighing a business partnership with her employer, who’s investing in the development of miniature cows. “The disadvantage,” says Daddy “is that they tend to get lost in the tall grass.”
In “Twister” precious things are always getting lost, but Almereyda, who was raised in Kansas seems to know his way around tall grass. He forsakes Robison’s restrained, elliptical style and goes for something more blatant and abrasive. But her wistful subject - children suffering from vague or vanished parents – remains intact. Maureen (who’s neglecting and abusing her own daughter) and brother Howdy are obsessed with the mother who years ago mysteriously dropped out of sight. (She even looks like Amelia Earhart.) Thinking they’ve discovered her whereabouts, they compose letters proposing visits. Maureen: “All we want to do is be friends with her, right?” Howdy: “We could just say, It’s all right, Mother, we love you. You’re forgiven.” And when Maureen complains that one of Howdy’s efforts reads like a business letter, he explains, “I didn’t want to scare her.”
Certified eccentric Glover, his hair in a page boy, wearing velvet frock coats and flourishing Daddy’s bullwhip, sinks his fangs into fey, histrionic Howdy. (In the opening scene in which he’s nuzzling his girlfriend in a cafeteria booth, I thought he was Marilyn Quayle.) He tends toward incoherent, strangely inflected speeches that flaunt Howdy’s pathetic vulnerability. On the other hand, Stanton is a comparatively sedate and satirical. (This may be that unique picture in which Stanton comes off as the sanest of the lot.) As prim Miss Virginia, especially in video close-ups of her painted freckles, Chiles is chilling. Amis plays the cranky Maureen with rare and admirable (frightening) surliness, and McDermott’s Chris is rather amazing in his problems with fire. In a cameo, William S. Burroughs supplies what is becoming the hipster seal of approval.
Cinematographer Renato Berta is not an American (he shot Godard’s “Every Man for Himself” and Tanner’s “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000”), but he has an eye for the mythic heartland. Almereyda likes compositions with large-screen TV images commenting on the foreground. I guess all of this is too scary for the regular movie marketplace.