Sounder probably features more extremely wide shots than any movie besides Lawrence of Arabia – and Martin Ritt's movie is only half as long. Time and again, humans become antish dots on the horizon, visually overwhelmed by the vast wilderness around them.
That's Ritt's way of establishing the world of David (Kevin Hooks), a young boy living in the Louisiana woods with his sharecropper family and the titular dog during the Great Depression. That world completely envelops him in these shots, which perform the old pastoral trick of contrasting the human and temporary and insignificant with the eternal realm of nature. Ritt, however, sets that up in order to subvert it. Ultimately, the boy must face the choice to leave that world behind.
The chain of events leading to that final choice begins when the boy's father (Paul Winfield), after stealing food to feed his hungry family, is sent to jail and, eventually, to a work camp. In his absence, David must run the farm with his mother (Cicely Tyson) while also searching for Sounder, who fled into the woods after being injured during the arrest in a startlingly realistic scene of animal cruelty. (Those of you who are sensitive to that sort of thing have been warned.) After reuniting with his dog, they look for the downstate camp where his dad's been sent to, walking the whole distance. During this journey, he meets with a kindly schoolteacher, who suggests that he attend her school, away from the farm.
Sounder is based on the notable, Newbery Award-winning children's book of the same name, and its themes – transcendence of one's lowly roots through education, the trials of adolescence, racial prejudice – are pretty solid civil-rights era, young-adult stuff. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Although Sounder occasionally comes off as a bit stodgy and p.c., it's never cloying or preachy, for the film earns and rewards involvement with solid dramatic craftsmanship.
At its frequent best, Sounder works as an almost documentary-like portrait of a family under trying circumstances. (In this way it reminded me, oddly enough, of Rachel Getting Married, though useful comparisons ought to go no further.) The only ones who may be disappointed are animal-cinema aficionados, who will no doubt be let down by the fact that, despite having his name in the title and everything, the movie isn't really about the dog at all.
Above all else, Sounder is a technical marvel. John A. Alonzo's cinematography is gorgeous – and it's represented fairly well on DVD in spite of a slightly muted range of colors that I suspect is not fully representative of the original look. The opening moments in particular are almost flamboyantly well done, featuring a textbook example of how to stage and shoot a scene in near-darkness – and with dark-complexioned actors to boot.
Additionally, Sounder probably offers the best work of most of the players here; if maybe not for Paul Winfield, then certainly for Cicely Tyson. Kevin Hooks is good as well, though Ritt seems to have dialed in his performance significantly, perhaps thinking that a blank character would be easier for audiences to identify with. And, yes, the dog is very good, too. (Though, shamefully, he doesn't even get a screen credit!)
Taj Mahal's delta-blues score is heard almost constantly, often when he's appearing on screen as a minor character (hmm… another Rachel Getting Married parallel…) and it's to that score's immense credit that it never grates.
Since it has been almost universally accepted that the 1970s were some manner of high-water mark for American cinema, one would think Sounder would have more of a reputation than it does. (Unfortunately, the Koch Vision DVD does nothing to bolster that reputation, offering only a clip of the trailer as the sole extra.) I suppose the fact that Sounder is ignored in favor of Apocalypse Now, Mean Streets, and Jaws (all films which I also like) says a lot about what 21st century audiences and critics respond to, or have been trained to respond to, in their films. It's too bad that a masterful bit of craftsmanship like Sounder has been lost in the shuffle.
© Dan Erdman
SOUNDER (1972). Dir.: Martin Ritt. Cast: Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks, Carmen Mathews, Taj Mahal, James Best. Scr.: Lonne Elder III; from William H. Armstrong's book.