Friday, June 10, 2016

Movie Review: Barn Burning


Barn Burning is a forty-minute television adaptation of William Faulkner's 1939 story by the same name. It was broadcast in 1980, and stars Tommy Lee Jones as Abner "Abe" Snopes. Jimmy Faulkner, nephew of the author, also appeared as Major de Spain in this, his only acting role. The house used in the film as Major de Spain's house is historic Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, which was Faulkner's home for more than thirty years, and is now a museum in his honor, maintained by The University of Mississippi.

Barn Burning is a dark tale of a man with no hope, only malice. Abe Snopes is a tenant farmer who, with his family, is almost constantly on the move because he likes to burn the barns of his landlords. The family members are dragged along, apparently believing, as Abe tells the boy Colonel Sartoris Snopes (the narrator) that "You stick to your own blood." Abe has a twisted sense of justice, and though he sees himself as the lowest of humans, he does not accept his own evaluation, lashing out at his betters and provoking them to even worse treatment of him. He ultimately comes to the end he seems to have been seeking as an escape from his miserable existence.

Faulkner's story focuses on a singular personification of evil in a man with no recourse, no hope of change or any goodness in his life. He is doomed from start to finish. Colonel Sartoris, "Sarty," represents the observant reader with a sense of balance. He both identifies with Abe, and sees Abe's misanthropy with objectivity. The family around the two hint vaguely at a better past and a worse future. But Abe seems to be evil from beginning to end.

Thirty-five-year-old Tommy Lee Jones is excellent in his portrayal of this very flat character, and his performance is the highlight of the film. Interestingly, this is not the only time he has played a pyromaniac. He also played a bomber opposite Jeff Bridges in the 1994 film Blown Away, which I consider to be an excellent film as well.

Barn Burning has been called boring, but its starkness left me wanting more, and if you are in my camp, it may be an excellent lead-in to The Snopes Trilogy, for which it is a prequel.