Anyone who still doubts that television can produce art the equal of the best theatrical films need only look at Paris Trout, an exceptional adaptation of Pete Dexter’s wonderful, harrowing 1988 novel of the same name. Dexter’s story, which won a National Book Award, has the simplicity and emotional power of a great blues song. It’s the tale of a profoundly misanthropic shopkeeper who abuses his wife, shoots a 12-year-old black girl in a fit of racist rage, and almost gets away with it all — because he is a white man in the South during the ’50s and because nearly everyone around him is terrified to challenge a person who seems like evil incarnate.
The shopkeeper, Paris Trout, is played by Dennis Hopper, who is perhaps on intimate terms with pure evil after playing the laughing-gas psycho-killer Frank in Blue Velvet. But there are shades to Hopper’s portrayals of malevolence. His Paris Trout is no over-the-top loony like Frank. Trout is a subtler villain, one whose cruelty is shaped by the time and place in which he lives. Sitting in the back room of his general store in a small town in Georgia, Trout is a petty autodidact who is brusque with his customers and a bully with his wife, Hanna, played by Barbara Hershey (Beaches). He sells an old car to a young black man (Eric Ware), never informing him that the car is badly damaged. When the youth refuses to pay until the car is repaired, Trout murders the man’s younger sister. It’s a crime made all the more horrifying for its impulsiveness.
After the killing, Trout seeks help from his lawyer, played by Ed Harris (The Abyss). Like everyone else in town, Harris’ Harry Seagraves is unaware of Trout’s true depravity. Seagraves has known Paris all his life and at first just thinks he’s working for a crank who accidentally shot a kid, but he quickly learns the truth. Hanna tells Seagraves that, soon after that crime, her husband raped her with a soda bottle. Seagraves is trapped — obliged to defend a man he now loathes, even as he and Hanna fall in love.
Director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Killing in a Small Town) has managed to retain a crucial quality of Dexter’s book — the feeling that before the killing, Trout was just a mean man, but that after it, even he knows he’s gone too far. This realization drives him insane, and that’s what lifts Paris Trout above melodrama to the status of tragedy, one with a tragic hero who’s a complete louse.
Rarely has a writer been as well served by a television adaptation of his work as Dexter has with this TV movie. This is partly because Dexter served himself well — he wrote the crisp, jolting screenplay. But Gyllenhaal deserves a lot of credit for refusing to tone down the depiction of Trout’s bottomless malice. There’s nothing discreet or ”tasteful” about the way Gyllenhaal has filmed the girl’s murder or Hanna’s rape — they’re so shocking you may turn away from the screen.
It’s a media commonplace to say that we’ve become desensitized to violence because there’s so much of it in movies and on television, but that’s wrong: We’ve become desensitized to bad artistry, to the banal, emotionless portrayal of violence. All the blood and hacked limbs in such movies as the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series don’t summon up anything like the real horror of violence that Paris Trout does in a couple of brief scenes.
Hershey, who did fine work with Gyllenhaal last season as the star of Killing in a Small Town, never permits her Hanna to become a mere victim — she retains her dignity. Harris pulls off the difficult task of portraying a calm, decent man without ever seeming dull or naive. The stars are helped enormously by a strong supporting cast, including Darnita Henry as the little girl killed by Trout. The complexity of everything that Dexter and Gyllenhaal are trying to express is conveyed in Henry’s awed expression when she looks at Paris Trout for the first time.