The opening credits roll over Sirkian satin and the old farm from The Wizard of Oz is shot through the Gone with the Wind filter, but the overture of childhood isn’t complete until a discordant note ("And if anybody doesn’t like it," the moppet grumbles to her doll, "they can blow it out their ass") sends it collapsing into the present. In suburban New Mexico, the adult Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is neglected and forlorn, flapping against glass doors like an ensnared gazelle. Suddenly widowed, she pulls up stakes and hits the road with young son (Alfred Lutter) in tow. (Their car has barely left the driveway when the smartass kid kicks off his "Are we there yet?" mantra.) The journey through the New West is a bumpy one, Phoenix is a lounge saloon without a piano and Tucson is a greasy spoon run by vaudevillians, the heroine ponders it all with a softly caustic "Quo vadis?" Pulsing with nervous energy, Martin Scorsese’s camera is in a state of continuous discovery—the eye that's so drawn to macho rituals here explores unknown spaces in tandem with his wandering protagonist, beguiled by Burstyn’s scarred feistiness. Roughness is never far off even during the most playful moments, the grinning beau (Harvey Keitel) can turn into a psychotic cheater, switchblade and scorpion-pendant and all. (As the Good Cowboy, Kris Kristofferson takes Alice’s jittery hand and drawls soothingly: "Steeeady, big feller. It gets easier.") At his most generous, the director slows down the riotous beat and savors the makeshift sanctuaries of garage sales and motel rooms, watching the characters sunbathing on the dusty sidewalk with an amiably blowsy waitress (Diane Ladd) or sipping wine with a mischievous tomboy (Jodie Foster). (Scorsese ditches this rhythm once back in New York, but Demme runs with it.) A comedy of effulgent grubbiness, the most pugnacious treatise on "woman’s picture" tropes since Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves, above all an ode to the heroine who will have her song heard. Cinematography by Kent Wakeford. With Billy Green Bush, Leila Goldoni, Vic Tayback, and Valerie Curtin.
--- Fernando F. Croce