Willie Stark (Sean Penn) drinks his orange pop with two straws. This detail comes up more than once in All the King’s Men. At first, the pop suggests Willie’s country-bumpkinish predilection and essential decency, as he eschews whiskey in order to follow his dear wife’s tee-totaling wishes. But it’s not long before the pop takes on other meanings, in particular as Willie’s narrator — the odiously named Jack Burden (Jude Law) — adopts the habit. As a decision, a studied pose, the pop-drinking becomes a sign of rebellion, a declaration of independence from the political “machine” that means to contain all who aspire to power or change.
Jack’s declaration is by definition derivative and so, not quite “independent.” Telling his own story as he tells Willie’s, Jack reveals his own culpability, even his emulation of his employer. But this frame is a problem for Steve Zaillian’s long-delayed movie adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel, in that Jack’s protestations of integrity are unconvincing, and worse, banal.
In part, Jack’s burden is temporal, which is to say, cultural and political. The 1946 novel (as well as Robert Rossen’s first movie adaptation, released in 1949) emerged at a moment when personal and public corruptions still seemed horrible, indications of moral and emotional weaknesses. Today, cynicism and dishonesty are built into systems of governance and campaigning. As a result, Jack’s disappointment at discovering Willie’s various depravities now looks more naïve than honorable. It’s like he hasn’t been paying attention. As the designated observer of his friend’s decline, not to mention a reporter by vocation, Jack’s lack of insight or anticipation also looks a bit silly. His listeners, even those who don’t know the story, see the end coming long before he does.
From the start, Jack takes a complicated sort of high road: the camera looks down on him as he lies in his bed, describing the pursuit of “truth” in terms both ethical and professional. He pronounces that such pursuit must be premised on a belief in its potential benefit, alluding already to the great harm that befalls most everyone in the film who uncovers secrets. What he leaves out here is the film’s more compelling lesson, that this so-called truth is a fiction.
That Jack appears to miss this crucial point makes his own story feel protracted, an effect exacerbated by Penn’s remarkable, peculiar, and fits-and-startsy performance as Willie. First appearing as a shy, well-intentioned fellow who drinks pop according to local Louisiana custom, Willie is possessed of a seeming natural gift for rousing audiences. Encouraged to run a campaign for governor by the upstate machine wrangler Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), Willie no sooner learns that he’s being manipulated to generate a win for a profoundly better-funded opponent than he discovers his brilliant oratorical voice. He throws out his prepared speech, points out Tiny as the villain, and, as James Horner’s score builds to predictable “uplift,” Willie pronounces to his audience of country fair “hicks” that he means to campaign on his own terms, to build roads, schools, and bridges, and generally look after the poor folks as no other politician has done.
As your stand-in, Jack watches this speech, which soon becomes a montage of the most pedestrian sort, where integrated crowds grow in size, raising their fists, and Willie repeatedly waves his arms in an awkward display of passion. All the King’s Men uses such shorthand to suggest Willie’s success as a man of the people, and then, as soon as he’s installed as governor, accusations abound as to his corruption. In order to fight back, it appears, Willie adopts blackmail as a tactic, and his campaigning-now-governing workers go along, including his lover Sadie (Patricia Clarkson), Tiny (brought back into the fold because of his questionable skills as a planner and bully), and a loyal, scary-faced gunsel named Sugar Boy (Jackie Earle Haley).
Though the film doesn’t delve into whether Willie is involved in graft to the degree his detractors claim, it makes abundantly clear that he lapses into personal corruption by way of a prodigious sexual appetite. Jack watches him audition girls with athletic abilities (ice skaters, dancers), then trundle off to have what might be grand or terrifically dull sex (Jack doesn’t see this part). For Jack, the promiscuity is damning in itself, as he remains loyal to the idea of his one true love, the lovely and etherealish Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet).
Even when he’s drinking or delirious, Willie is more appealing than Jack, whose detours into his own gothic background take the movie off rails. When he starts remembering his childhood (learning to shoot with the help of his godfather, Judge Irwin [Anthony Hopkins]) and adolescence (involving predictable rage at his alcoholic, four-times-married mother [Kathy Baker]), the film turns almost unbearably trite.
The major trauma for Jack has to do with his infatuation with Anne and friendship with her devastatingly idealistic brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo), rendered in conventionally hazy flashbacks. In an egregiously “poignant” memory, the boys look on while Anne walks naked into a lake, the moonlight shimmering on the water, silhouetting her perfect form. As much as this image haunts Jack, it pummels you. He’s torn up by his love for a girl who goes wrong, feels responsible for her downfall, and can’t imagine a world that doesn’t revolve around him. Distrusting its audience to follow even this most conventional of stories, All the King’s Men finally feels more like a burden than revelation.