(spoiler alert for discussing ending scenes)
Scarecrow is an underrated gem from 1973 starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. The film starts out as an on-the-road buddy comedy, the two actors playing hobos travelling across the country for different reasons. Gene Hackman plays Maxx, who is the central focus for much of the beginning, a cankerous man who is trying to get back to Pittsburgh to start a car wash business. Al Pacino plays Francis, later nicknamed Lion, who has been at sea for five years. He needs to go to Detroit to see his child, who’s birth caused him to flee. Carrying a lamp as a present (he is unsure of the gender) he plans to meet his family and become real father after all. Lion serves as his jovial sidekick, but there is more than meets the eye to his story. By the end of Scarecrow, we realize that the story has been very much about Lion after all.
In one of the beginning scenes we learn that Lion has a certain creed, a way of life that helps get him through. He tells Max that scarecrows do not actually scare crows, but instead makes them laugh.
Lion: That’s right, the crows are laughin’. Look, the farmer puts out a scarecrow, right, with a funny hat on it, got a funny face. The crows fly by, they see that, it strikes ‘em funny, makes ‘em laugh.
Max: The god damn crows are laughin’?
Lion: That’s right, they’re laughin’ their asses off. And then they say, “Well that ol’ farmer Joe down there, he’s a pretty good guy. He made us laugh, so we won’t bother him any more.
By imparting this to the hotheaded Max, he is suggesting that the he mellow his enemy with humor. Using clowning as opposed to hostility will lessen the chances of Max always ending up with a black eye.
Throughout much of the film, Lion is the funny side man, there to diffuse awkward situations with his child-like humor. Always smiling and lighthearted, Lion seems amazingly free of any angst or anxiety. We see Lion using his joking as ways to cover for Max many times throughout the film, trying to stop him from getting into fights or throwing off tense situations. Lion feels that his advice and worldview will work in Max’s favor, since it has seemingly worked for him. In one important scene, we see how his jesting is truly a defense mechanism for Lion. One that will not always work out in his favor.
Max and Lion have ended up in jail. Max has been in jail before, he knows the ropes and is not there to make friends. But the goodnatured Lion quickly gains a friend, who ends up wanting him for malicious intentions. Lion and Riley end up alone in a room, where Riley starts cornering and attempting to sexually assault him. At first Lion laughs it it off and makes a Frankenstein reference “Get back, Igor”. But the audience can see the horror behind Lion’s smile. Riley is infuriated, thinking Lion is laughing at him. Lion ends up getting severely beaten by his “friend.”
One scene is the climax for Lion’s arc, where the audience sees that there is so much more brewing beneath Lion’s joyful exterior. It begins where a drunk Max has started a fight with yet another guy in a bar. Lion again attempts to diffuse the situation by turning a famous striptease song on the jukebox. But instead of Lion putting on a show it is now Max, who willingly stops himself from engaging in another fight. Lion is then forced to confront the realities of his worldview, when his pupil has put his principle into practice. It is now Max’s turn to make ‘em laugh. The camera focuses on Lion in a long shot, we study his reaction. The long shot conveys that Lion’s humor has just been a mask, which is slowly fading away. Lion has been hiding his true self underneath this clown’s mask all along, and the film’s ending scenes hits this home even further.
Max and Lion finally arrive in Detroit. Instead of showing up at his ex-girlfriend’s home unannounced, Leon decides to call her. But his phone call is not welcomed. Annie tells Lion that she miscarried due to her turbulent emotions after his abandonment. The film cuts to Annie in her home, where we see a young boy, five years old, who looks EXACTLY like Al Pacino. Clearly, Annie is lying. She then preys on Lion’s Catholic guilt by reminding him that since the unborn child was not baptized, he live in purgatory for eternity. (Lion’s Catholicism was touched upon in earlier scenes, already establishing that his faith was important to the character.) After they hang up, Lion is clearly devastated. But he turns and cheerfully makes up an excuse to Max that he doesn’t need to see his child after all.
The next scene shows Lion playing around with neighborhood children, doing imitations of the pirate Long John. The film is explicitly conveying just how much humor serves as a way of coping and glossing over his pain. Soon the joking stops, and something in Lion snaps. He carries a child further into the fountain. This can be seen as Lion’s way of baptizing his son, making up for the loss in this abstract way. A scene follows at the hospital where we learn that Lion has suffered from a catatonic breakdown, he lays on the bed unmoving and dead-eyed.
But Scarecrow does not end on an entirely somber note, for Max leaves for Pittsburgh promising to return to Lion with money to pay for his hospital stay.
Scarecrow begins as a slightly typical buddy comedy, with one lead and a supporting jester. But the jester turns out to be a sad clown, making for an introspective look at the way we all play roles in our life, and how humor can often be used as a Band-Aid for our pain. Scarecrow is commendable for turning the tables on the audience by taking the story in an unexpected direction.
(Also, I’d like to NOT thank the DVD for having this picture on the back and fooling me into thinking that he would meet his adorable son.)