Writer: Ward Roberts
Star: Sid Haig
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He came back because Tarantino wrote a good part for him in Jackie Brown and he’d regretted turning down the Marcellus Wallace role in Pulp Fiction. However, he was picky and for eight years only played parts for Tarantino and Zombie. Two more horror flicks later and then this, the only time I’ve seen him play the lead in 25 features and the only straight drama of the bunch. No wonder it came quickly to his mind! He’s not only the lead, he’s the emphatic lead, nobody else with their name before the title card and few with roles that warrant even a co-starring credit. Richard Riehle, otherwise the most obvious actor in the film, underplays his role notably, as if not to steal a single moment from Haig. I’m very happy to see all of this, especially because it’s also the debut feature for Ward Roberts, a young filmmaker who I know from more recent, even more ambitious, movies for Drexel Box Productions: Lo (as an actor) and Dust Up (as writer/director). Travis Betz, who plays a clown here, did the same jobs the other way round.
Of course, circuses are all about making people happy (unless you’re one of the growing number of coulrophobics who freak out if they even catch sight of a clown) but that’s not what we see here. Seymour Smiles appears to be poorly named, because his face is sorely in need of a smile and it looks like it hasn’t seen one in many a year. His first stop, as he walks through Peru to his family’s boarded-up house, is for beer, cigarettes and beef jerky and it’s only the latter that gets dropped off his shopping list when money starts to run out. There’s no electricity or running water at home and he makes no attempt to get either switched on; he pees on a bush in the front yard and cooks bacon in a large fireplace. He falls asleep with lit cigarettes in his mouth and his shoes in the fire, so it’s almost surprising that he makes it through the film alive. Given that he appears to be drinking himself into oblivion, we can safely assume that he doesn’t want to make it. Why, we have no idea, but we’ve all heard the old Pagliacci joke.
If any of those Hallowe’en audiences were expecting another Captain Spaulding, they would have been sorely disappointed, but it would be easy to misinterpret the film far beyond that. For a film that features a clown teaching other clowns to be funny, there’s a shortage of laughs here. It’s no comedy, that’s for sure, but there are few light-hearted moments to be found, especially during the first half of the film. We might read it as a feelgood movie, which it sort of is, but it takes a long while to start feeling good and it gets distracted from that frequently. What it really aims to be is a character study, not only of a clown who’s forgotten why he’s a clown but of his home town too, the ‘Circus Capital of the World’, and perhaps even the industry that it recognises. Circuses used to be much bigger deals, back before pop culture made us believe that clowns are scary, so Peru may be feeling the pinch just as Seymour is. It’s no stretch to see him as representing the art of the circus needing to find itself again to be able to move forward.
What we get out of this picture is very much going to depend about how much we care. Our protagonist, who is rarely off screen, is an antisocial alcoholic, hardly the most enticing character. We’re given little background to help us understand why he is how he is. We just watch him refusing to do anything about it and projecting his troubles onto others around him. While Haig does a fine job of showing inner torment, that’s not enough to automatically generate sympathy. We’re more likely to support someone who wants to change than someone who’s apparently content to pickle himself from the inside out. There’s one scene where I’m not convinced he doesn’t botch a suicide attempt, by lying down on the wrong train tracks. Highly paid Hollywood scriptwriters would give Seymour hope early on, but I like the approach Roberts took of making that wait. He may lose some viewers partway through but those who stay will appreciate the depth of despair more acutely. There’s a lot of fall here without much rise.
Little Big Top certainly has its flaws and some of its successes could be seen as flaws by less dedicated audiences. It takes a while to get moving and longer to get anywhere we recognise. It refuses to let us into Seymour’s background, just his present, and we get even less for anyone else, even when we think we might. Seymour watches a young lady called Jenna, who’s trying to master the backward somersault on the trapeze, often enough that we expect there to be meaning in it but there isn’t beyond him wanting someone to succeed hard enough that he eventually sets himself on the path to do it too. Seymour is also notably unlikeable for a large proportion of the film. It’s no spoiler to suggest that he does get past that but it takes him a long time to do it, maybe longer than less-indie minded audiences will want to wait. But those of us who do will appreciate Haig as a lead actor, playing someone who isn’t wild and wacky and isn’t another of those heavies that he retired to avoid. Clearly he appreciated the opportunity too.