Directed By: Victor Salva
Written By: Victor Salva
Produced By: Roger Birnbaum, Daniel Grodnik
Cast: Sean Patrick Flanery, Lance Henriksen, Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Goldblum, Brandon Smith, Missy Crider
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 111 minutes
Review Date: February 25, 2011
Let’s just get this out of the way, right up front: Powder is a mess of a film. But it wouldn’t be such a mess if there weren’t some interesting ideas and promising plot developments buried beneath a ton of pretentious metaphysical conceits and obvious manipulations on the part of writer/director Victor Salva.
Jeremy (Sean Patrick Flanery) is an albino — nicknamed ‘Powder’ — living in hiding in the cellar of his grandfather’s house in rural Texas. When his grandfather drops dead of a heart attack, it isn’t long before law enforcement and state officials remove him from the house and take him to live in a home for troubled boys run by Jessie (Mary Steenburgen). But Jeremy is more than his appearance lets on. His mother was hit by lightning while pregnant with him. She was killed, while he lived. This makes electricity attracted to him, including lightning. Oh yeah, he’s also apparently psychic and a genius at such a level that he would make Einstein look like the kid in class who eats his own boogers.
And therein lies one of the main problems with the film. Salva seems determined to layer ability on top of deformity (along with his albinism, Jeremy also has no body hair) on top of ability until Jeremy is no longer recognizable as a human being with which the viewer can empathize. Jeremy becomes nothing more than a symbol on to which Salva can project heavy-handed metaphors for racism and homophobia before ultimately going off the deep end with an ending that turns him into a Christ figure.
Even though this constant bludgeoning of the audience with overwrought symbolism would normally be enough for me to complain about, I have to take special exception to the score by Jerry Goldsmith. Normally a solid composer for big-budget studio fare, Goldsmith’s work on Powder is so obtrusive as to feel like a parody of “inspiring” film scores. Nearly every potentially moving moment in the film is rendered silly by overused, maudlin cues that don’t so much suggest that the audience cry as demand it.
This inability to maintain an identifiable protagonist and believable tone buries the interesting idea that Jeremy could be the next step in human evolution. While this plot point — provided by Jeff Goldblum’s exposition-spouting science teacher — is silly on the surface, it at least gives the film an interesting hook. But no sooner is this idea brought up than Salva abandons it for more spiritual mumbo-jumbo implying that the attraction of lightning to Jeremy might make him a direct conduit to God — a spiritual element that could have been intriguing if not for Salva’s heavy hand.
It also doesn’t help matters that Jeremy only seems to encounter two distinct kinds of people: the saint-like Jessie and Don (Goldblum), and over-the-top, redneck bullies. Only the local sheriff (Lance Henriksen) comes across as a believable, multidimensional character for his ambivalence with how to approach Jeremy. He fears his abilities and acknowledges his concern that Jeremy might be a danger to the community, but he respects his intelligence and efforts to remain harmless. He has no interest in making Jeremy out to be a monster or a martyr, he only wants to do what’s best for all involved.
If there is a saving grace to Powder, it’s the great supporting cast that Salva assembled. Besides Steenburgen, Goldblum, and Henriksen, the always-welcome Ray Wise snags a cameo to help prop up the sagging story. Henriksen, in particular, does great work in probably his meatiest role outside of his uneven TV show Millennium. In addition to his usual quietly authoritative persona, he nails two surprisingly emotional scenes with his dying wife and his estranged son — a feat made all the more impressive for his ability to overcome Goldsmith’s maudlin score during those moments.
I wish I could say the same for Flanery. Buried under (admittedly impressive) makeup, saddled with a character who is more a symbol than a human being, he struggles to bring any kind of humanity to Jeremy. He consistently falls back to staring at people and objects with his eyes open wide and his head tilted at an angle. It’s less a performance than an overused affect. But with the unrestrained tone and the poorly constructed character, it’s hard to put much blame on him for the film’s inability to create emotional investment in Jeremy.
Powder is a great example of a message movie gone wrong. Salva tries to deliver so many messages about the evils of fear, racism, homophobia, and anger that he muddles the various messages into an unintelligible mess. Even worse, he forgets about the story that he starts to tell, becoming sidetracked by so many half-baked pseudoscientific and spiritual ideas that the film suffers from a complete lack of forward momentum. There are the occasional interesting scenes, but Powder fails to come together as a cohesive or compelling whole.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.