"The scattered pieces reassembled into one. Effect stripped back to cause, and cause still unconceived."

The mind of Leon Barlow (Arliss Howard) is a troubled and fragmented vision in words and images, impossible to fit inside the world of conventional film. Based on the short-story collection of Mississippi writer Larry Brown, Big Bad Love isn't so much a story as a poetic portrait of a storymaker, pieced together with running metaphors, cheap beer, rejection letters, haunting memories, a broken marriage and a little bit of paint, both disrupted and barely held together by Leon's desire to make it as a writer.

He's an outsider in rural America because he speaks a different language in which words become reality; reality is translated back into words and all become equal. The real bits include Leon's blood-tight friendship with easygoing Monroe (Paul Le Mat) who dances with life holding a paintbrush and a beer can in each hand, and Leon's ex-wife Marilyn (Debra Winger) who drives in and out of his mind's eye with the kids.

Seasoned actor Arliss Howard not only stars in the film, he directed and co-wrote the adapted script with his brother James. This thought collage has a late-’60s, early-’70s, free-for-all cinematic tone reminiscent of Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, and working-class poetic dialogue that welcomes memories of John Cassavetes' fractal scripts — all of the above grounded by rude, harsh life events that won't let themselves be ignored.

Angie Dickenson as Leon's disappointed and disapproving mother helps to anchor the film with an "old-school" acting foundation, pulling itself tightly to the substantial "newer school" performances of Arliss, Winger, Le Mat and especially Rosanna Arquette as Monroe's small-town flashy girlfriend, Velma.

Layered loose ends, thoughts and timeless philosophies come and go as they please to a sound track of Mississippi hard blues that works like a train pumping the poetry along its way. Big Bad Love is a sad, erudite song that lives inside a lonely writer. It pours the shots, laughs at his jokes and pushes him along through the rough spots to the end, wherever and whenever that may be.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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