Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, and Diane Keaton in 1986's "Crimes of the Heart."

Crimes of the Heart February 1, 2019  


Bruce Beresford



Diane Keaton

Jessica Lange

Sissy Spacek

Sam Shepard

Tess Harper

David Carpenter

Hurd Hatfield









1 Hr., 45 Mins.


rimes of the Heart (1986) feels like a modern take on the post-antebellum, stormy southern gothic. Here, even the secrets have secrets. But there is an airiness to the material — an almost cheerful sensibility, if you will — that renders it something of a parody of the form. The capers are breathy, and the performances, all exceptional, have ingrained in them the sort of untamed energy that

defined the portayals in, say, Hush, Hush … Sweet Charlotte (1964).


The film, which also works, kind of, with the family-drama format, is set in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, mostly at the home of the Magrath family. There, the core trio driving the film — sisters Lenny (Diane Keaton), Meg (Jessica Lange), and Babe (Sissy Spacek) — were raised by their grandfather, whom they lovingly refer to as “Old Grandaddy.”


Caprice is everywhere. But there's a clear root to the dysfunction. Years ago, when the siblings were on the cusp of puberty, their mother hanged both herself and the family cat. Since the tragedy, nothing has been the same.


Relationships have grown increasingly shaky (and distant, both figuratively and literally) with the passing years. But as Crime of the Heart begins, the sisters are given a couple of reasons to reunite. One is that Old Grandaddy’s health is rapidly failing; the other is that Babe, married to a dominating mustachioed businessman, decides to shoot her husband after he comes home from work one day. He survives, which makes it difficult to tout self-defense, since she really did pull the trigger the moment he walked through the door.


The sisters do not necessarily have to put their lives on hold to head back home. Lenny, an introverted neurotic, lounges about her sprawling nearby mansion, bemoaning her singlehood. (She refuses to date, as she purportedly possesses a shriveled ovary.) Just a few years ago, Meg went to Hollywood and became a relatively successful singer and actress, but, after suffering a nervous breakdown, her career declined and never picked back up. When the siblings first greet each other, and then hole themselves in the home in which they played and watched TV and saw tragedy, there is an unmistakable current of both comfort and hostility vibrating in the air. While the Magrath girls perhaps only feel at ease confiding in each other, there is a perpetual worry that long-hidden secrets will be brought up again, and an uncertainty as to whether reopening old wounds will revivify bad blood or simply renew close connections.


The movie is something of a tightrope act, given that it contains so many elements of the southern gothic, is not an outright satirization of the genre, and yet is a great deal funnier than many of its counterparts. The play of the same name on which it was based (which, in turn, scored its writer, Beth Henley, a Pulitzer Prize) is not familiar to me. But remaining a constant in reviews I've read is an idea that Crimes of the Heart, whether playing out on the stage or on the screen, is certainly difficult to pinpoint, but ultimately wins. This is because of its hysterical energy and because of the performances, which require katana-sharp comic timing and a lived-in rapport with the other leads.


These characteristics were the items I enjoyed most about the movie. Spacek, Lange, and Keaton are precisely overexcited, never cartoonishly so, and the directing, by Bruce Beresford, is welcoming of the mania but never in such a way that hammers away at the nuances, and darker emotional beats, of the material. To make sense of this southern-fried scramble is among its joys. Thrillingly, you never know where it’s headed. B+