Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
An extremely moving exploration of compassion, The Journey of August King is an underrated masterpiece with stirring performances and a touching conclusion. In the woods of South Carolina, a manhunt is commencing for two escaped slaves. Their arrogant and cruel owner, Olaf Singletary (Larry Drake), has offered five acres of land and his prized stallion to whoever tracks down the girl in particular. August King (Jason Patric) is a simple mountain farmer on his way to market to purchase supplies. He doesn't believe in slavery but is unwilling to risk his life to help them escape.
He runs into the black girl (Thandie Newton) in the woods and points her to the north and freedom, but continues along his way unhampered. August had had a difficult year. His wife, a mountain artist of some repute, recently died and has left an aching hole in his life. He just wants to survive another year without going mad with grief. His second night on the trail, the slave girl once again comes to his campfire. She offers to give him a silver watch if he'll help her escape. Knowing the price for aiding a runaway slave, August tells her to get on her way but then relents and lets her sleep in his wagon overnight. The following morning brings cow herders from the north and the girl is forced to stay concealed while he stalks the trail. Inevitably they are thrown together and August's feelings go beyond disinterested compassion. Annalees has had an extremely difficult life and longs for freedom. She is gentle and sweet-natured, but uncommonly violent when provoked, and has a natural fear of men. She begins to innocently dig through his tough outer shell and reveal the sad story of his life. The two eventually come to realize they are a great deal alike. When the stakes become high, August is forced to choose between everything he holds dear and the salvation of one extraordinary young woman.
The messages in this film are very profound. What bleeds forth is utter revulsion for slavery. Many other films have attempted to tug our heartstrings with this same kind of tale, but The Journey of August King is different. Somehow it manages to touch us on a much deeper level. It's not merely a love story or even a tale of survival, but an exploration of the human spirit. We see instantly that August is a very different man than those hunting Annalees down. She comes to trust him despite being wounded in the past by other white men, and their relationship becomes a deep, flourishing friendship rather than anything lurid. The sexual tension between them increases but is never consummated. He shows her selfless love and expects nothing in return. The tale is slow moving in some respects but also very theatrically tense, and filled with gorgeous scenery. There's also a lot of back history involved but only given in small doses; by the end we know all about August King and have seen his transformation out of grief into the light, but were never consciously aware of the character development.
Annalees' age is never determined but we must presume that her master abused her sexually; she also turns out to be his daughter. When August runs a strand of her hair through his fingers curiously, Annalees attacks and bites his arm savagely, saying she'll have no man taking advantage of her. The heartless men hired to track her down ask if they can "use her a little on the way back," but her owner makes it forcefully clear she's to be returned "unsullied." A few references to rape come up in conversation, and Annalees asks if August has ever seen the girl who's sweet on him naked. (He hasn't, and seems embarrassed by her question.) He reprimands her for modesty when she's sitting on his wagon scratching her inner thighs. After being drenched in a mountain stream, they return to his cabin and Annalees undresses to her shift before the fire. The garment is mildly sheer. He applies balm to her shoulder and is noticeably tempted but then pulls back. When briefly glimpsing her nude silhouette in the bedroom as she changes clothing, he retreats to another part of the cabin. His restraint is admirable.
When August King starts home after visiting the market, he has a full wagon, a milk cow, a pig, and two geese. By the time he reaches home, he's lost all of his animals. The milk cow is slaughtered; we see the river running red with blood, as well as his repulsed expression as he stands beside the carcass. The pig comes loose in the rapids and goes over the falls (implied but unseen). The film opens with farmers hunting and killing a bear (actual impact unseen), who wounds one of the dogs. The parallel between tracking down an innocent animal that hasn't caused any harm, and the same men striking out after Annalees is more than apparent: we feel repulsed by the experience. There is one instance of GD, and a few mild profanities. The rating comes from a horrifying scene in which a slave is strung up by his ankles and questioned. His owner becomes enraged and snatches up a hatchet. We hear a horrified cry, women screaming, and then see a gruesome sight... the silhouette of two halves of the slave still hanging from the gallows. (His owner slit him from one end to the other.)
These elements are hard to watch but also further the very strong case the film makes for freedom and self-sacrifice. As August King concludes at the end of the film, "Two days ago I thought I was pretty well off, and now I have nothing. I've never been so proud." Even though Annalees' owner is cruel and sadistic, he's even touched by August's compassion. The acting is also very sound. Jason Patric has a very soulful, angst-filled face; he is beautifully played off of by Thandie Newton. The more I see of her work, the more I respect her as an exceptional actress. The film doesn't have a lot of action scenes but is very meaningful, and well worth watching for older viewers. It brings to light the inner struggles of decision we make in our daily lives, and our willingness to accept the consequences. We are called to do what is right, not what is simple or in our own best interest. That's the lesson and value in The Journey of August King.