It’s wonderfully crafted films like Empire Falls that keep American cinema alive. This is not a movie; it’s a film, it’s artful cinema. And why it went relatively unheard of with such a powerhouse cast and brilliant storytelling is beyond the scope of this reviewer’s imagination. Empire Falls is a small mill town well past its heyday, but still retains its New England charm that could keep a photographer busy for months. Empire Falls, in which everyone knows everyone, deals with its inhabitants, and the focus is on Miles Roby, a shy passive man who’s afraid to take chances. He is gracefully played by Ed Harris, who can play just any type of role, and play it perfectly. Miles is haunted by his past, by his mother who's trying to make a better life for her kids despite his deadbeat dad, her love affair with a rich man whose widow torments Miles to this day. He has a daughter, Tick, an angelic beauty, who also has her own troubled teenage life to deal with in the ultimate level of Hell, High School, and an ex-boyfriend who is behaving violently. You can see the complexity of the story that will unfold.
Miles only wants to do his best for him and his daughter, and tries to keep everyone happy, even if this means being nice to the man who’s about to marry his ex-wife. Janine (the ex) is uneducated, unskilled in matters of life, and still in love with her ex-husband. She’s brought to life by Helen Hunt, who seems perfect for this role. Meanwhile Mile’s father Max is always on the lookout for handouts, up to minor mischief, and suffers from a Hemingway complex. Such is his nature, as he has been in and out of jails all his life. Max is brilliantly played by Paul Newman, and by brilliantly, I mean The Verdict brilliant.
Miles’ dream is to expand his diner, the Empire Grill, into a more upscale restaurant with the help of his culinary-inclined brother David — played by Aidan Quinn with relish, although his low-profile role is a bit under the radar. To do this, Miles must get a liquor license. But you see, he’s not the owner, the old widow Mrs. Whiting is, and she’s been dangling carrots in front of Miles’ eyes all his life as payback for her husband's infidelities with Mile’s mother. She owns the town and pretty much everybody in it.
When this fails, Miles gets together with his brother and the owner of Callahan’s bar. They team together to soup up her bar into a dining establishment. To accomplish this they need a bank loan. Guess who’s on the board of directors? So, of course, this new blow pushes Miles over the edge, and he finally quits being everyone’s welcome mat.
There’s much more going on in this film, but telling would deprive the viewer of the feast that is Empire Falls. It ends in a little victory sure to please anyone who's ever been manipulated by folks with power and not much the kinder aspects.
The cinematography in this feature is just fantastic. They seem to always get the perfect shot, the perfect angle, the perfect atmosphere for the scene. Everything about the look and feel of this film is apropos. You want to live there just for the scenery. And, the musical score just matches the scenery seamlessly.
The acting in this character study is Oscar-perfect. Paul Newman, Ed Harris, Aidan Quinn, Helen Hunt, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (not playing a gay man for once), are great, and Joanne Woodward as the old widow has such elegance and poise it almost feels wrong to hate her character. Dennis Farina plays the gym-owning wife-stealing Walt with just enough greasiness to keep him semi-likable. Theresa Russell is unrecognizable playing the flirtatious waitress at the Grill and former crush of Miles, but now she’s with his brothers, who both think Miles is unaware. Robin Wright Penn plays Miles's mother in the flashbacks that haunt Miles. And Max’s younger persona is played by Josh Lucas, who has to act like Paul Newman acts, which is no small feat. Not to forget the unknown Matt Blumm, who plays a 20-year-old Miles, and has the same brow and lower lip as Ed Harris. The resemblance is kind of freaky.