American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Orphans" is a good play about behavior that has been turned into a mediocre movie about nothing much at all. That is not intended as a criticism of the filmmakers, but simply as an observation about the nature of the material.
Although it is possible to construct elaborate theories about this movie, you blink and they're gone. "Orphans" is not about a man who wants to be a father, or about boys who want to have a father, or about sublimated sexual desires, or about the underlying bond between criminals and outcasts. It is about shouting and jumping around and posturing and eccentric behavior. The movie stars Albert Finney as a Chicago gangster who travels to Newark with a briefcase full of negotiable bonds and promptly gets drunk out of his mind in a tavern. He runs across Matthew Modine, a street punk, and instantly sentimentalizes him as a Dead-End Kid - perhaps out of some maudlin idea the gangster has of his own childhood. Finney gets even more drunk, passes out and wakes up tied to a chair. He has been kidnapped by Modine, who lives with his brother (Kevin Anderson) in a crumbling house in the middle of an urban wasteland. Finney never loses his cool. He frees himself of his bonds and then, amazingly, does not take the opportunity to escape. Instead, he stays in the house, cleaning and painting it, and appoints himself to tutor the two brothers in the ways of the world. His task is to tame and domesticate Modine, who is too hot-tempered, and to free Anderson of self-imprisonment (the kid hasn't even been outdoors in years, because Modine has convinced him he's allergic to the outside world).
Modine has a stake in keeping his brother imprisoned. It gives him power and a godlike role in their small world. Finney works artfully, using object lessons, parables, and question-and-answer sessions, feeling his way, talking these kids into a new view of themselves. There is a lot of stage business for him to perform while he talks. He paints, does carpentry, plays with his gun, and watches while Anderson swings from the curtains and tumbles around the set like a monkey in a cage. Modine alternates between aggression and passivity; he takes a strong line at first but eventually confesses his ignorance to the older man.
This sort of material is strong on the stage. You enter the same time and space as the actors, and the lights go down, and they project great energy at the audience, which leaves feeling slightly more dangerous and alive than when it entered the room. It is a very satisfactory experience. Plays such as Lyle Kessler's "Orphans" and Sam Shepard's "True West" (with its suite for pop-up toasters) can be considered as concerts for voices and movement. The playwright supplies the words and suggests the actions, and the actors cry and whisper, leap and crouch, fight and surrender, and reveal great hurts from their pasts. Along the way, it is important, of course, that they change and that they discover some measure of the truth about themselves.