Whether it takes us back to childhood, or to ‘better times’, the appeal of nostalgia is the fantasy it offers of regaining paradise lost and returning to a state, however illusory, of innocence. Bullitt County, the second feature from writer/director David McCracken (Daylight, 2013), comes with a double dose of nostalgia: not only is it set in 1977, in a period before personal computers, mobile phones and the Internet, but its thirtysomething characters are themselves looking back to their simpler, sweeter college days, uncomplicated by the accumulated scarring of adult experience. The essential irrecoverability of that time in their lives is made clear near the start, in a scene where protagonist (and Vietnam vet) Gordie (Mike C. Nelson) and his old friends Robin (Jenni Melear), Keaton (McCracken) and Wayne (Napoleon Ryan) revisit their favourite down-and-dirty distillery on Kentucky’s Bourbon Bluegrass Trail, only to discover that it has, in the intervening years, been converted into the more upmarket Red River Winery – and in any case, Gordie has long since been on the wagon. The occasion for their reunion is Gordie’s imminent marriage, but the future groom still carries a boyishly fumbling flame for Robin, and his past has a tight grip on his psyche.
So there is something of The Big Chill (1983) to Bullitt County, as these old college friends look back wistfully on their past relationships, trying to negotiate where they have come from and who they are now. Yet this is also a film that, right from the outset, keeps confounding our expectations with a marked instability of genre. For its opening sequence shows Robin and Keaton pulling stockings over their heads, entering Gordie’s home, violently chloroforming him and bundling his unconscious body into the boot of their car, while the less demonstrative Wayne sits silently in the back seat. It is as though we have been plunged into the middle of an abduction caper – and it is only when Gordie wakes the following morning that we realise that this has all been an elaborate masquerade to kickstart their sort-of stag party and trip down memory lane. Yet those early intimations of criminal activity will later return as the four go digging for Prohibition money rumoured to be buried somewhere in the Kentucky woods – and as they have an uncomfortable and escalating encounter with a couple of locals (Dorothy Lyman, Richard Riehle), another kind of buried history is brought back up to the surface, threatening to drag everyone down.
Bullitt County is a character dramedy that soon shifts into something more tense and twisty, with its earthy realism offset by unexpected psychological flights of fancy and excursions into the hinterland territories of toxic masculinity. At one point near the start, Gordie browses the goods in Red River’s antiques store, and breaks a pocket watch. At various subsequent points in the film, he and Wayne try to fix the watch, but their efforts are in vain. After all, time has stopped for these ex-students, still haunted by the secret past that they share. When your youth includes a hidden history of violence, nostalgia comes more red- than rose-tinted, its sweetness decidedly soured. In this ingeniously written and structured backwoods thriller that conceals its art through ellipses and impostures, Gordie’s ongoing journey to find himself keeps unearthing the same old uncomfortable truths. The occasional use of split screens, though certainly period-appropriate (in a film that never overplays its retro details), is a covert signifier of Bullitt County‘s divided story-telling loyalties and broader generic schizophrenia (including a very sly verbal allusion to ‘Mr Torrance’, that other aggressive, alcoholic male protagonist immortalised in The Shining, which Stephen King published in the same year this film is set). Yet McCracken manages to locate a genuine sympathy for his characters even when they are at their most devilish.
“This will always follow us,” says Wayne, who knows a thing or two about the persistence of guilt and trauma. For in Bullitt County, the past is like a living, breathing presence, always coming back from the dead and always tragically repeating itself. As one character puts it, “There’s no such thing as the good old days anymore.”
© Anton Bitel