The Rain People Blu-ray Review: She’s Driving Her Life Away

The Rain People (1969) is a stylish road drama written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola that stars Shirley Knight, James Caan, and Robert Duvall. The movie tells the tale of three adults whose lives come crashing together as one runs from her current unhappy situation and becomes entangled with other damaged souls, forcing all three to confront their troubled pasts.  

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Natalie (Knight) wakes up one quiet morning and decides to leave her husband Vinny. She just gets in the station wagon and splits. She drops by her parents’ house who urge her to go back but she insists she just needs some time away. She calls Vinny from a payphone to let him know that she’s pregnant and considering an abortion. Later while driving, she decides to pick up a hitchhiking young stud, Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon (Caan), an ex-collegiate football star who now suffers from brain damage. Jimmy’s school gave him a thousand dollars and sent him on his way, now that his playing days and full mental faculties are behind him. At a motel that night, Natalie considers making it with Jimmy and toys with the rather docile “Killer” while playing a round of Simon Says. Nothing comes of it as Natalie backs away from her wild desires and sends the child-like Jimmy off to his room. 

The next day back on the road in the rain Natalie agrees to leave Jimmy at an ex-girlfriend’s place where her father had once offered him a place to work. As Natalie struggles with her undesired attachment to Jimmy, he endears himself to her more while telling a poem-like story about fragile rain people. Upon arrival, his ex-girlfriend makes it perfectly clear she does not want “dumb” Jimmy around at all and explains this to her father quite rudely. So down the road they go; Natalie is still desperately trying to abandon Jimmy and continue her journey West but her conscience won’t let her leave him just anywhere. In one small town, Natalie decides she must cut Jimmy loose so she puts him in the hands of a shady business man with a questionable reptile farm. 

As she speeds away from Jimmy, she is pulled over by a motorcycle cop named Gordon (Duvall), who lets her off easy after asking her to have a coffee and a date with him later that night. Over coffee, we learn the place where she has to pay her fine is located at the reptile farm. When Natalie and Gordon arrive, Jimmy has caused a ruckus by letting loose all the inhumanely caged animals on site. Natalie is yet again forced to take Jimmy along with her but she still insists on staying the night with Gordon at his trailer park abode. Here, in Gordon’s cramped mobile home, we’re introduced to Rosalie, his young daughter and their dysfunctional relationship. This isn’t the first time Poppa has brought a strange woman to the pad for a midnight romance. Rosalie pesters and prods her father before being thrown out to roam the mobile home park where she stumbles upon a sulking Jimmy who’s wandering about waiting for Natalie.

Meanwhile back in Gordon’s bed, we learn of his trauma and how he recently lost his wife to a house fire. The tense situation gets worse as Natalie becomes more uncomfortable and doesn’t want to carry on with Gordon, causing a violent reaction. As she tries to flee from an enraged Gordon, Rosalie and Jimmy lurk nearby and hear the dust-up. Jimmy launches into his own rage and bursts in with the intent to smash up Gordon. Little Rosalie, though, grabs Poppa’s gun and comes to Gordon’s defense, popping off a couple shots that drop the hulking Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon once and for all. The neighbors look on while Gordon writhes in pain as Jimmy breathes his last and Natalie pulls at him and cries that she’ll take him home to Vinny and they will look after him.  

That’s a lot of story in 102 minutes, but Coppola manages to keep it interesting as he weaves three different lives together in The Rain People. What could have been an overlong (the original rough cut was over four hours) story of a woman’s journey and struggle to decide her future becomes something more in Coppola’s hands. The use of flashbacks to expand the characters’ backstories is perfect. He uses them in short bursts as if we are watching their memories as they think or speak of the past. His use of the muffled phone calls as the only way we hear Natalie’s husband is great and acts as almost a rational voice in her head as she tumbles toward a breakdown. We see Natalie struggle to assert herself and stand by her decisions but we also see the negative impact that her spur-of-the-moment actions have on those she encounters. 

As The Rain People runs towards its close, we come to see Natalie’s actions are more selfish impulse and a need to sow wild oats than a trip of discovery. Her destructive journey seems a little frivolous at the end as she spews her feelings of caring for Jimmy like the child she’s considering abandoning. Then again maybe that chaos was needed to bring her mind around to what she really wanted? Maybe her cries are just empty words in a moment of panic as she realizes the pain she’s caused these already damaged people? Coppola leaves that for us to decide as the screen goes dark and the credits roll. 

Knight captures the disillusioned feminist and confused late-’60s housewife well as she struggles to hold onto her own identity (often referring to herself in the third person) within her rocky marriage. Caan can act and I think this is one of the first places we get a good idea of what he can really do. We feel for the now-childlike Jimmy but also know his past doesn’t seem too squeaky clean either. Duvall does great as well and hints at the depth and inner conflict that he’ll bring in later years to characters like Gus in Lonesome Dove. And we all know what happens when Coppola brings Caan and Duvall on board for his very next project, The Godfather. There are no special features with this Warner Archive Blu-ray release and that’s a shame as it would have been wonderful to hear the thoughts and memories of Coppola and crew. 

The Rain People has weighed on my mind since I first saw it a few years ago on TCM. It’s also a bit of a heavy watch as it brings front and center the consequences of choices made and roads taken. Coppola leaves us to decipher it all for ourselves and decide how the movie sits on our own conscience and fragile inner rain person.

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Joe Garcia III


  1. Gordon S. Miller on May 7, 2024 at 4:59 pm

    is that an Eddie Rabbit reference?

    • Joe Garcia III on May 7, 2024 at 5:05 pm

      Yup. My mind went to rain songs, then Eddie Rabbit, then the first line in Driving My Life Away.

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