- Movie Rating -

Goin’ South (1978)

| October 6, 1978

I never do this, but in preparing to write a review of Goin’ South, I read some reviews from the past, mostly by critics who disliked the film for a variety of reasons.  The response was mixed, but there wasn’t one overriding problem that anyone could pinpoint.  I wanted to see for myself.

For me, Goin’ South is problematic but overall, I enjoyed it.  It’s a sometimes daffy, sometimes sober western comedy that doesn’t have enough action, doesn’t have enough comedy and doesn’t yield a romance that flowers into anything we really care about.  Yet, I was entertained more by what the movie was then by what it was not.

This was, you might well know, Jack Nicholson’s third of four directing efforts and I must say he’s not a bad director.  The value of Goin’ South is that he largely keeps the story centered on his character, the dimwitted outlaw Henry Moon, and keeps the story mostly in the dark – for long stretches, we know only what he knows.

Moon is just the kind of character you’d expect from Jack, an irritant to law and order and clean living.  As the movie opens, he’s on the run from Federales who chase him across the Mexican border into Texas where he thinks he’s safe, but he falls right into the arms of some American lawmen who decide to introduce him to the gallows.  Yet, a problem arises when it is revealed that a legal loophole allows for Moon to be spared if one woman in attendance is willing to marry him.  That lady, it turns out, is Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen in her feature debut).

Julia, of course, has no interest in settling down with Moon.  She wants him for a massive chore back at her range, to dig for gold that is supposedly hidden in a nearby cave.  This gold, she says, would save her farm from being overrun by the railroad company who have claimed her land as eminent domain.

Where the story goes is pretty easy to predict.  Virginal, clean-cut Julia has no interest in the squalid, ill-mannered Henry Moon save for the work he is assigned, and the movie doesn’t do a great deal to change their minds about each other.  What develops in their relationship occurs slowly so that by the end they have come to an understanding rather than a phoned-in romance.

I was invested in this relationship and how it developed even while it keeps getting distracted by the outer plot details that keep blowing in Julia’s front door.  I cared about the couple, but I could have cared less about the band of intruder who crash the party once Henry and Julia discover gold in them thar hills.  And I couldn’t care less about the American lawmen who remain on Henry’s heels.  The supporting players are really just a distraction here from a slowly moving relationship that could have and should have been at the film’s center.

All in all, I can understand the mixed reaction that other critics might have had, but it didn’t deaden the experience for me.  Goin’ South is no masterpiece but it is sure-footed as far as Nicholson’s direction goes and as far as Steenburgen’s performance.  It’s a good film, not a great one, but I enjoyed it none-the-less.

[reviewed February 7, 2021]

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1978) View IMDB Filed in: Western