The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

D: Robert Redford
S: Will Smith, Matt Damon

Pleasant but inconsequential film from director Robert Redford based on the novel by Steven Pressfield. Savannah Georgia, 1929. A local golfing legend (Matt Damon) reappears after ten years of self-imposed exile when his former love (Charlize Theron), the daughter of a wealthy businessman who has committed suicide following the Crash, organises a tournament to feature two of America's most distinguished pros. Haunted by his memories of the Great War, the young man initially has trouble finding his game. But when a mysterious caddy (Will Smith) wanders out of the night to offer his services, the troubled soul begins to see golf as the search for spiritual meaning and inner clarity that it really is.

As with most Redford films, this one is distinguished by a rich atmosphere and a sense of time and place. Yet though the production design by Stuart Craig creates a recognisable look and there are nods to the social and economic conditions affecting this world, it is more a fantasia of the South during the depression than it is an attempt to recreate it. The film is dreamlike from the outset. It calls to mind the attempted whimsy of The Milagro Beanfield War and the quasi-pantheism of A River Runs Through It. Like the latter, it concentrates on evoking tentative and almost unfathomable connections between characters and the landscape. In this case it is primarily golf courses which are in question, and the search for holistic harmony is filtered through the game to the virtual exclusion of all other concerns. The characters themselves are poorly drawn and lack substance. They, like the world itself, are unreal. They are merely part of the visual tapestry of Redford's film, which becomes more a cine-poem than a narrative. It may have pretensions to be a kind of American magic realism, but unlike the director's previous Ordinary People or Quiz Show there is no force at its centre.

Golfing aficionados may thoroughly enjoy this loving homage to the profundity of the game. There is a story here which follows some familiar dramatic and generic trajectories, a tale of redemption and the triumph of the underdog which is recognisable after a fashion. For the most part though this is a reflective mood piece in which golf assumes the mantle of something less than a symbol but more than a metaphor. Overlapping dialogue detailing how one 'sees the field' and 'finds the authentic swing' may raise happy smiles of recognition from those for whom the game has this kind of meaning, but Redford and screenwriter Jeremy Leven really do not provide enough background detail or insight into character to flesh it out for the rest of us. Of course, this is not the point. Redford has made films of this type before (where you're not meant to understand how it works, you're just supposed to feel it) and one might argue that this approach is characteristic of his cinematic vision.

It is frequently a beautiful vision. The film is always a joy to look at. Michael Ballhaus' crisp cinematography works with Rachel Portman's soporific score to transport the viewer to a physical and psychic space which certainly seems to envelop its characters and understandably so. The locations are lovely, the evocation of time and place is absorbing, and one even buys the frozen moments where people melt away from the field of vision of the golfers as they concentrate on their shots. Redford almost abandons the pretence of storytelling to concentrate on mood and emotion, and the film on the whole is peaceful and mesmeric.

It is frustrating nonetheless to find this place peopled with mere ciphers and shadows. The title alludes to a 'legend' which is never made particularly clear or seems particularly potent. Bagger Vance is the caddy portrayed by Smith, and he literally appears out of the night and vanishes in the twilight more like a myth than a person. His presence is never really felt dramatically however, as Damon (ill-defined as his character is) has no genuine relationship with him. Smith shambles about nonchalantly and lowers his vocal register in an echo of Morgan Freeman's performance in Driving Miss Daisy. But he is never more than a collection of golfing aphorisms (nor is he meant to be). Damon likewise often faintly resembles a young Robert Redford (as did Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It), but the character's wartime traumas are mere allusions and one senses less behind the face than is necessary for dramatic credibility. The character's past experiences are literally psychic spectres which block his ability to play the game (of golf, of life), and they are eventually brushed aside with the equivalent of the Little Book of Golfing Wisdom. An important romantic plot thread involving Theron unfortunately does little more than fill in some space between rounds of golf and a sub-plot involving narrator Jack Lemmon as a child peters out despite potentially interesting detail.

One can say that The Legend of Bagger Vance is well made in that all the technical particulars seem to be in order. The film is earnestly acted, looks and sounds good, and more or less sustains interest for the two hours or so that it runs for. But it is soft at the centre and peddles a form of golfing mysticism which will be alien to most viewers. It is difficult to know where its audience might be outside of golfers, and even fans of Redford's previous 'softer' work The Horse Whisperer will find it tough to take unless some aspect of the game and its players grips their imagination.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.