The Human Stain (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's comments in white (spoilers):

I want to begin with a simple statement: Human Stain is a good movie. I want to establish that before I get off on a rant about how nobody will ever want to see it, because if you are that one person in a hundred who appreciates Ibsenesque insight, it may be your kind of film. The other 99% of you will find it duller than an evening with Andy Rooney, and more painfully serious and obviously wounded than John Hurt discussing world hunger.

It features a cast of four excellent actors who play their parts perfectly (Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinese, Sir Tony Hopkins, Ed Harris). It is a serious, faithful adaptation of a significant novel. It contains human truth and some vivid analysis of society. I admire what it accomplishes.

But I'll be damned if I can figure out why the investors thought they'd get their substantial investment back. It is a thirty million dollar film packed with stars, but it has the soul of an arthouse indy. It is an oh-so-serious-and-literary treatment of a man who is fired for making a "racist remark", although he did not. He is a college lecturer and two of his students have never shown up for class. He asks, "do these people really exist, or are they spooks?". I guess he should have said "phantoms" instead of "spooks", because it just so happens that the two missing students are of African descent, and one of them turns the remark into a racial incident.

Why is this enough material for a film? Because the offending professor is, himself, a light-skinned African American man who has been passing for white since he graduated from high school and joined the navy. Within a few years after that time, he was in a different city, he and his family had turned their backs on one another, and there was nobody to dispute his whiteness. His white wife lived with him for forty years and never suspected.

The film chronicles his life after the incident which provoked his resignation, and flashes back to the path that led him to that point in the first place. Ultimately, the film suggests obliquely that perhaps all of our assumptions are incorrect, and that he really might harbor a form of racist feelings against black people, even though he is black himself.

The forward engine of the story is, unbelievably enough, a love story between the disgraced professor and a young female janitor half his age, played by Nicole Kidman. The Kidman character has also rejected her own past, although she has moved in a direction nearly the opposite of the professor's. She came from a wealthy family and rejected their values to do some downward social climbing, resulting in a trailer-trash life, a violently insane husband (Ed Harris), and a tragic incident involving the loss of her children. The black/white man and the downwardly mobile woman, lovers who have each rejected their families, manage to find some (uneasy) comfort in one another.


Nicole Kidman is naked in very poor light. The only well-lit angles show one breast from the side-rear.

Jacinda Barrett is very naked indeed, especially frontal.

Yeah, you read that right. It's Nicole Kidman and Hannibal Lecter in the sack.

Ed Harris is tremendous in this movie. Not only does he depart from his usual refined self, but you'll barely recognize him, and he'll just frighten the hell out of you. It is amazing to me how he can take his haunted intensity and apply it in so many different ways. After I saw this film, I realized that Harris has just the right qualities to make an excellent villain in a horror movie.

The film was directed by Robert Benton who is most famous for having written Bonnie and Clyde and having directed Kramer vs Kramer. He's not exactly what one might call prolific. In 31 years as a director, he's made only ten films:

  1. (7.39) - Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
  2. (7.36) - Places in the Heart (1984)
  3. (7.19) - Nobody's Fool (1994)
  4. (7.07) - Bad Company (1972)
  5. (6.78) - Human Stain, The (2003)
  6. (6.51) - Late Show, The (1977)
  7. (6.11) - Twilight (1998)
  8. (6.07) - Still of the Night (1982)
  9. (5.72) - Billy Bathgate (1991)
  10. (5.22) - Nadine (1987)

That's not a bad list at all. Benton has seven Oscar nominations and three wins (one as a director, two as a writer). He has been nominated for his work on five different films. The Human Stain has been ranked in the middle of his career output by IMDb voters, beating out one of his Oscar nominees. That's fair enough. As I said in the first sentence, it is a good movie, but I don't know how the investors thought this kind of literary introspection would pay off, because it is not only a serious film, but a seriously depressing one as well. Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". If he saw this movie, he might have called it "calamity wrapped in pathos inside of tragedy". From the board's callous firing of the professor, to the professor's callous rejection of his family, to the tragedies of Kidman's past, to Harris's insanity, to the ultimate tragic conclusion of the bizarre love triangle, this may be the single most depressing film you'll ever see.

It just had "feel-good summer blockbuster" stamped all over it!

I reckon Miramax knew it would lose money, but considered this a "prestige" picture and hoped it might warrant some Oscar consideration, at least for the actors if no other categories. Had that been the case, the additional publicity might have pushed the receipts up as well, but that never happened, despite the undisputed ability of Miramax to lobby successfully for awards consideration.

Tuna's comments in yellow (no spoilers):

The Human Stain (2003) is impossible to discuss much without spoiling a secret central to the main character, Coleman Silk, who was played masterfully by Anthony Hopkins. Roger Ebert loved the film and awarded 3 1/2 stars, but went ahead and wrote a spoiler. His reasoning was that the secret was already out because of the book the film was based on. I had not heard of the book, and am sure a large part of the reason I enjoyed this film was not knowing the secret in advance.

As the film opened, the sound track reminded me of dozens of slow paced character-driven dramas that have put me to sleep in the past, so I settled in for a long afternoon. Boy, was I wrong. Yes, the film was well acted by virtually every cast member, and yes, it has some beautiful nudity, but the factor that most endeared the film to me was that it never once moved in the direction I expected. After all of the films I have seen, most plots are now completely predictable, but this drama kept me guessing from start to finish.

Some critics have complained that it was overly literary, but it ought to be, given that the lead character was a professor of literature. There was only one "literary" misstep in the film for me. They had a rather nifty piece of symbolism, but didn't establish the plot element before they slapped us in the face with it. A little subtlety here would have made the idea brilliant.

The film portrays racism from several angles, as well as the transition from privileged society to lower class, and vice-versa. Along the way, some of the writing was absolutely inspired.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Big stars, $30 million dollars, but apparently was not destined to be a mainstream release. Grossed only $5 million. Never in as many as 400 theaters.

DVD info from Amazon

There is a tribute to the cinematographer, and a very brief "making of"

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+ (both reviewers). Scoop says, "Excellent movie, but no entertainment value and clearly limited appeal." Tuna says, "I was very impressed. If you are interested in intelligent character-driven dramas that really dig deeply and honestly into people's lives, this is a very good one."

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