Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Redneck Rampage: JACK TILLMAN: THE SURVIVALIST (1987)

When I'm not busy wistfully reminiscing about the days when cars weren't simply motorized child-carriers and when it would never occur to a rock musician to cut his hair and play acoustic, I reminisce about the good old days when crackers from Montana were the people who conspired to kill Americans. Yes, back then you knew who the loonies were. They were us.

Now days we have lots of knuckle-heads running around saying that the government needs to be overthrown. It's become mainstream and instead of American terrorists, now they are wealthy republicans who have made a fortune with the governments help, but are just mad that a black democrat is in the White House. Back in the '80s it was so much simpler. Half-cracked loonies who stock-piled guns, water and cans of Beenie-Weenies because they were sure that the world was going to be nuked and it would be every man for himself and there would be no laws keeping your average citizen from raping and killing whoever they liked. Utopia, right? Back in the early '80s, the waning days of "Men's Adventure" novels, there were a series of 29 post-nuke survival books written by Jerry Ahern titled "The Survivalist". This series has been said to be the basis for the film, but having not read the books, I can't say for sure, but from what I can tell, the relationship, if it's not in title-only, certainly isn't an official one.

After a nuclear explosion in the Siberian highlands, the Russian government quickly points the finger at the US and threatens retaliation. The US claims they did nothing, but you never know with those dirty politicians, particularly since they declare a state of emergency and impose martial law, which they were probably planning on doing anyway. Bastards! Citizens are urged not to panic and to make them rest easy in this non-event, the constitution is suspended and all personal assets are frozen. Yep, the anti-government paranoia bypasses reality and heads straight into the realm of the tinfoil-hat.

Jack Tillman (Steve Railsback) has been waiting for this day and starts stockpiling firearms and family members in his cabin, while his learned friend gives him the low-down on the situation: "this is all just another bunch of bull-crap from Washington. Another tax hustle." His friends, of course, are skeptics of Jack's "survivalist lifestyle" but suddenly come around to Jack's sweaty, paranoid way of thinking after being robbed by local townsfolk who have decided that the end is nigh. Jack is reluctant to loan out one of his eight shotguns (three more than he has family members) to a friend, but finally does it because he's a hell of a guy.

Railsback vs. Gortner...
Texas isn't big enough for these two assholes.

Chaos has broken out in town and the reason we know the country is on the brink of collapse is because we see hippies stealing food from Mexicans! Mass hysteria! Meanwhile Jack's wife and daughter are raped and murdered in his house. Of course this is the greatest day in Jack's life, because now he can finally take the law into his own hands! His first act? He grabs a Caterpillar, smashes into a bank past the National Guard and takes his safe-deposit box, seriously pissing off the bike-riding troops. Why are the National Guard looking like Hell's Angels? The only thing I can think of is that we are viewing the world through Tillman's blood-tinted glasses. Biker's represent Jack's mental image of lawlessness while Jack sees himself adopting the role of post-nuke wild-west lawman (never mind that nothing has really happened other than an outbreak of panic). This Jack-o-Vision is the only way to explain scenes like the one in which Tillman fights his way into a hospital, cold-cocks his doctor friend, kidnaps him and his wife and casually shoots a completely random stoner dude, for their own good!

Jack decides that the town is a write-off (so much for the old "saving the town" heroics) and that he is going to take his kidnapped doctor friend (Cliff De Young) and his wife Linda (Susan Blakely) to a camp in the mountains to find his son, in his bulletproof 4x4. Of course things are not that simple. Not only does the National Guard MC (headed up by Marjoe Gortner) want to make an example of him, but roving bands of outlaws want their supplies and everyone wants the Doc's woman. Since the Doc is such a liberal pussweeb, his wife is just longing to be taken by a real man (this the part where tea-party activists grab the baby-oil and a box of tissues) and nothing says "real man" like paranoid delusions and homicidal intent. Not to piss on Jack's good fortune of finding a replacement for his mere days-dead wife, but wouldn't a "real man" go toe-to-toe with the bikers, instead of running off into the brush, allowing the scumbags to abuse an innocent woman while he found a good sniper spot? Not in Jack's world baby! When Jack isn't being cunning and killing peeps in sneaky ways, he waxes introspective, comparing himself to the doc, "he's a highminded guy who can afford ideas and I'm just a country boy who can't. I can't even afford reality and reality's shit!" Damn, Jack has a deep soul.

Of course there's more than that for Jack and his kidnapped crew to get through. One of the obstacles is a local sheriff barricade. Jack decides to sneak around in camo gear in order to outflank, subdue and humiliate the yokels, who are for some reason allowed to live. Perhaps they are merely puppets of the corrupt government and are thus, in his eyes, safe from a shotgun execution. They are the lucky ones. In one sequence Jack and Linda find an abandoned motel. After making it with the doc's wife, Jack spies a dork with glasses peeping in on them. Jack's reaction is to blow six bloody holes in the peeper's chest. Jack is the law and his sentence is death! Of course, when the guy's friends open fire, Jack is totally justified in shooting all of them and blowing up their car too! No matter whether a breach of etiquette or an outright act of murder (though generally only 2nd degree), there is a strained justification to be found in there somewhere. I mean, if you can chase down and kill a guy armed with Skittles and an iced tea and be justified, there is no question that the rest of society is just begging to eat a face full of hot lead.

Jack acts as if the world has ended, even though nothing more than martial law has actually happened. No bombs have fallen, no foreign troops have invaded American soil, nothing but Americans going nuts and killing each other... and that is probably the most truthful speculation this movie makes, even though it's not trying to. Matter of fact we, the audience, are supposed to be on Jack's side, we are supposed to like Jack even though for the most part what he is doing is morally, even Biblically, reprehensible and amoral, the script contorts logic to the breaking point to create legitimate reasons for his rather unconcerned fury. After finding his son, he finally has a ROADWARRIOR-lite showdown with the biker-reservists at speeds of up to 20 miles an hour!

JACK TILLMAN: SURVIVALIST could have been easily made today. The whole anti-government militia thing (that went hand in hand with white supremacy) became a little bit unfashionable after the Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh killings in the '90s, but seems to have picked up momentum again. It's just a wee bit too close to the kind of thinking that made "The Turner Diaries" very popular in some circles, making it a bit uncomfortable if you stop and think about it for a minute. It is basically ROADHOUSE for repressed gun-nuts with cheery electronic flute and drum music accompanying the somewhat disturbing random shootings, attempted rapes and dangerously paranoid philosophy. Because of this, and the great cast, this makes it a must see for fans of misguided cinema. No actor can do sweaty, paranoid and unstable yet quite likable (well, sort of) like Steve Railsback, and here he doesn't phone it in, but doesn't overplay the role either. The movie is hilarious in its absurdity, yet if you think about it too long, it's an unintentionally grim statement about how fucked up some Americans can be.

My reaction to the film.

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