Winter Kills plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, January 5th, through Sunday, January 7th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
The 1970s film industry was rife with paranoia, as films like The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation(1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All The President’s Men (1976) played to eager audiences shocked by the revelations of Watergate and quite ready to believe whatever dastardly covert plots might be afoot in the world, especially at the higher levels of power.
At the conclusion of the decade, director William Richert upped the ante by setting loose Winter Kills, a thinly veiled and enormously energetic and entertaining take on the JFK assassination and associated conspiracy theories based on a Richard Condon novel. It can be viewed as black comedy, political satire, nihilistic commentary or all of the above—and how you perceive it says much more about you than Richert’s directorial choices.
Here the names have been changed to protect the guilty; the powerful political family is named Kegan, not Kennedy. But there’s a wealthy patriarch (a testosterone-poisoned and blustering John Huston) who presides over a vast empire with its tentacles implanted in virtually everything. An elder Kegan son was assassinated nearly twenty years before; scion Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), the half-brother of the late President, comes across new evidence (a deathbed confession, of course) that uncovers long-missing information about the President’s real assassin and a murder weapon.
This involves Nick with various and sundry red herrings and rabbit holes where he encounters a panoply of co–stars assembled in much the same manner as 70s blockbusters Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. There’s a right-wing militant (Sterling Hayden), the Patriarch’s Mr. Fixit (Richard Boone), the requisite technology master who oversees everything from a secret lair (Anthony Perkins), and the world’s most intimidating servant (Toshiro Mifune). All leave enthusiastic toothmarks on the scenery when they’re on screen and appear to be having a great time There’s even a cameo from Elizabeth Taylor! And why not?
First-time director Richert must have had a premonition that he would only direct three more feature films in his career, because here he leaves very little in reserve; the overriding style is mostly “why the hell not?” Over the course of the film, we see Nick wheeling his canary yellow Ford Pinto through a paramilitary exercise, Nick struggling with a murderous hotel maid, Pa Kegan leading a battalion of golf carts, Nick riding a horse out to the prairie so he can safely yell, “You stink, Pa!”
Jeff Bridges spends most of the film only slightly less confused than the audience. Anthony Perkins shows what Josef K. from The Trial might have ended up doing later in his bureaucratic career. John Huston gives a performance even darker and more insidious than his Noah Cross in Chinatown, but Richert continually tweaks his purported power by setting him in a different and increasingly ornate locale every time, often surrounded by an attentive bevy of beauties, and with wardrobe changes (including a red Speedo, no thank you) befitting Joe Pendleton in Heaven Can Wait.
Accordingly, the film is disjointed and therefore a bit jarring to follow; it’s more a collection of scenes than a cohesive whole. Every time the story starts to slow and give the viewer time to start figuring things out, it heads off to another location with its own rich set of MacGuffins. But while this structure may be difficult to follow, it’s eerily comparable to the logical gymnastics that modern day conspiracy theorists employ to patch and paste together some of their more unhinged theories. Compared to pedophile pizza parlors run by lizard people, Winter Kills makes absolutely perfect sense.
Eventually the film arrives at a conclusion where everything is neatly wrapped up by an omniscient character. Whew. Applying logic and understanding to the story as it proceeds will only result in a headache; it’s weird, messy—and great fun as long as you don’t take it too seriously. And if you do indeed take it seriously, you’re probably missing a very important QAnon meeting… somewhere.
Edited by Finn Odum