Powder (1995)


USA. 1995.


Director/Screenplay – Victor Salva, Producers – Roger Birnbaum & Daniel Grodnik, Photography – Jerzy Zielinski, Music – Jerry Goldsmith, Visual Effects Supervisor – Stephanie Powell, Makeup Effects – Thomas Burman & Barbi Dreiband-Burman, Production Design – Waldemar Kalinowski. Production Company – Hollywood Pictures/Caravan Pictures


Sean Patrick Flanery (Jeremy ‘Powder’ Reed), Lance Henriksen (Sheriff Doug Barnum), Mary Steenburgen (Jessica Caldwell), Jeff Goldblum (Donald Ripley), Brandon Smith (Harley Duncan), Missy Crider (Lindsay Kelloway), Bradford Tatum (John Box)


In a small Texan town, police go out to a farmhouse to report the death of an elderly farmer and are startled to find a strange bald, albinoid teenage boy living in the cellar. The boy introduces himself as Jeremy Reed or ‘Powder’ and says he has spent his entire life there. He is placed in a reform school where he soon demonstrates remarkable powers – his body draws metal objects and electricity towards it, he has an intelligence that goes beyond the scale of measurement and he can see inside the minds of every living thing that he touches.

Powder was a modest sleeper over the 1995 Christmas holiday season. It is a film that taps into the wish for transcendent religiosity that underlies much of modern American fantasy cinema – see examples like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Field of Dreams (1989) and the concurrent tv success of Touched By an Angel (1994-2003), as well as the very similar Phenomenon (1996) that came out not long after Powder, to name but a handful. Throughout Middle America it would seem, at least going by the appeal of these films, that there is a deep-seated wish for a transcendent (although non-denominational) magic that can affirm ordinary life.

Powder offers up another of the strangers with incredible powers that regularly come to deliver object lessons in these films. The film seems as though it were a product from the 19th Century when electricity was first discovered and demonstrated to be capable of making dead frogs twitch, where it was thought to be the source of the lifeforce and all manner of bizarre cures and quackery involving it sprouted up. The film is frankly bizarre in the way it latches onto electricity as the energizing force that drives all life. Powder earnestly celebrates a pantheism – preaching that all lifeforms are connected, that animals feel pain, people feel pain too and that all that people need is the simple healing effect of the realization of the connectedness of all things. The film reaches a bizarre ending where the title character is zapped by a lightning bolt and rather than mourning the tragedy of such, the film waxes reverential as we understand that energy never dies and he has gone on to become part of the rest of the universe.

There is an earnest sincerity to this, if an ever-so-slightly loopiness that puts Powder down around the level of New Age crystal healing and rebirthing mummery. It is conducted in overly reverential tones. Jeff Goldblum is on hand seemingly to offer cod explanations and cliche quotes – “Our technology has surpassed our humanity” – every few minutes. The score and photography try to make everything into the achingly monumental but most of the time end up underscoring the banality of it.

The effect that Powder has mostly lies in its performances. Sean Patrick Flanery, previously the teenage Harrison Ford in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-4), gives a fine performance of intense alienation. He communicates loneliness and suffering with enormous physicality, his long thin frame almost entirely bent over on itself. The supporting cast are good too – Lance Henriksen’s leather-beaten roughness is well-suited to the Southern sheriff part and Jeff Goldblum gives another of his appealingly hyped performances. Also good is Missy Crider, a muchly underrated actress who is surely deservous some day soon of a good vehicle that can allow her to show off what she can do.

As a footnote, Powder had a campaign launched against it by various groups who tried to have it banned when it was found that director Victor Salva had once been convicted of sexually molesting a 12-year-old boy. While one does not want to justify Salva’s actions, it seemed an hysterical overreaction, of people to try punish someone who had served their time and prevent them from getting on with being a productive, honest citizen again. The controversy surrounding him aside, Victor Salva is a highly promising genre talent. He previously made the excellent slasher film Clownhouse (1989) and went onto make the fine psycho-thriller The Nature of the Beast (1995) and the interesting supernatural pursuit film Jeepers Creepers (2001) and its even better sequel Jeepers Creepers II (2003), the stalker film Rosewood Lane (2011), the deviltry film Dark House (2014) and Jeepers Creepers 3 (2017). Salva later returned to the mystical positive thinking inspirational drama with the non-genre Peaceful Warrior (2006).

(Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Mary Steenburgen) at this site’s Best of 1995 Awards).

Actors: , , , , , ,
Themes: , , ,