Directed By: Lili Fini Zanuck
Screenplay By: Pete Dexter
Based on the book by Kim Wozencraft
Produced By: Richard D. Zanuck
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jason Patric, Max Perlich, Sam Elliott, Gregg Allman
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 120 minutes
Review Date: December 3, 2010
Nearly twenty years since its release, if Rush is remembered for anything, it’s as the film that first featured Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” That’s a shame. Not because the Clapton song isn’t a touching ballad, but because the film itself features some very good acting and a story that delves into addiction and the ethics of the “war on drugs” with an unflinching attitude.
Jim Raynor (Jason Patric) is an undercover narcotics officer in a small Texas city near Houston in 1975. Having spent several months buying drugs from small-time local dealers, he is given his choice of a partner to speed up his attempts to make a case against local bar and porn shop owner Will Gaines (Gregg Allman). Despite the protests of his captain (Sam Elliott), Jim chooses young police cadet Kristen Cates (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Jim teaches Kristen the fuzzy ethics that come with being an undercover cop, including the need to actually do the drugs they buy to gain trust. Despite her concerns, Kristen buys into Jim’s cavalier attitude that they’re not going to become junkies by keeping their feet under them and always keeping the need of making a case against Gaines in front of them. While Jim and Kristen slowly slip into the grip of addiction, the pressure increases to make a case against Gaines. The only problem is that Gaines may be dirty, but he may not be into drugs.
Despite a plot that hinges on typical undercover police intrigue, Rush is not interested in exploring a traditional good guys versus bad guys story. Primarily, it’s a look at the destructive effects of hardcore drug addiction. Told mainly through Kristen’s naïve point of view, we watch as she and Jim lose their grips on the real world, using the drugs they’re supposed to turn in as evidence. By the end of the second act, they are both so far from where they were when the movie started, it’s quite startling. But look beyond the addiction story and you find a film that quietly shows the uselessness of trying to stem the tide of drugs by arresting low-level dealers. This is accomplished mainly through the character of Walker (Max Perlich), a construction worker who sells drugs on the side. Walker looks at himself as just providing product for people to enjoy. In many ways, director Lili Fini Zanuck sees him the same way. Walker is sympathetic as he tries to connect people with dealers who have what they want, mostly because he considers himself friends with everyone. It’s never shown, but I would assume that most everyone he connects fail to think of him in the same way. That makes it even sadder than it should be when Jim reveals his status as a cop and forces Walker to continue making introductions. Walker doesn’t want to go to prison, but he’s ashamed of himself for giving up his “friends.”
Walker isn’t shown as evil or even necessarily a menace. He’s just a guy eager to please who finds himself in way over his head. While most of the other dealers that Jim and Kristen encounter are of the more stereotypically scary or creepy variety, it’s never shown how putting them in prison is going to make the world a better place. All that is made clear is that Jim and Kristen are putting their lives in danger and risking their careers as they become junkies for a cause that is never even clear to them.
I honestly didn’t find Rush to be very entertaining, but it’s effectiveness is undeniable. Backed up by the perfectly cast Patric (who I’ve decided was born wearing a scowl and looking like he needs to get some sleep), Leigh, Perlich, and Elliott, it’s a serious downer that makes its case without ever being preachy. Despite some third-act lapses in logic, it’s worth a look. Just be warned — it’s not a film for the tenderhearted.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.