He is tall, broad-shouldered, with a smattering of curling brown hair and a good natured smile. He talks with the pleasant twang of Southern Hospitality and he carries a big stick that looks miniscule against his imposing frame. He is Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) and he has decided that the citizens of his home county, McNair County, deserve someone who will stand up to the vices and scum that threaten their cozy small towns and farms. From director Phil Karlson, WALKING TALL is an interesting series of contradicting ideas and morals, just like its main character; a film that finds cathartic entertainment in seeing the wicked punished by the brave despite the violent means needed to achieve just that.
But as the film frames it, what else could the former wrestler turned aspiring county sheriff do? Moving back to his hometown, with his loving and supportive wife (Elizabeth Hartman) and kids (Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn) in tow, Buford was content to just make a hard earned living working with his father in the logging business, but a violent encounter at a local gambling hole shatters Buford’s idyllic vision of his hometown, a place now teeming with corruption and crime. With citizens and law enforcement alike involved in the crime and decay in one way or another, Buford takes it upon himself (and his trusty chunk of wood of course) to clean up the town. Despite his heroic intentions, writers Mort Briskin, Stephen Downing, and John Michael Hayes walk down a different path throughout the film’s course charting the dangers (both morally and personally) that can be found in the exercise of one man justice.
“Law and order”, an ideal that Buford shouts to the heavens throughout the film, is a loaded phrase nowadays in these chaotic days of 2020, weaponized by those in power who seem to want something as far away from “law and order” as possible. For audiences in the 70’s, the world too seemed to be on the brink of chaos, of the wicked running free and the innocent at their whims, so a film like WALKING TALL, with its catching image of a humble, strong, Southern man single handedly cleaning the streets more than likely appealed to those looking for any semblance of American made justice. But Karlson and his crew approach the tried and true “vigilante” sub-genre and twist it into uneven, if always interesting, territories. With Mr. Don Baker ably imbuing the physicality of a soft spoken, honorable paragon of violent justice (despite some not so politically correct moments, such as his casual utterance of the N-word to an African American colleague), Karlson and his crew take interesting, if uneven, dives into the complexities and consequences of “street justice”. While the large Pusser almost always wins in every awkwardly staged fight scene, the man never leaves those scenes without his cuts and bruises aching on his body and, as Karlson and Don Baker tantalizingly hint at, his own internal trauma as Pusser begins to see the crushing impact that his crusade has on his own family.
From my own viewing though, it’s hard to tell what Karlson and the writers really want to say about street justice. On one end, the film paints the idea of a man slowly (and violently) taking back his town as something of an escapist fantasy, filled with unironic bar brawls, tough talk, and speeches about doing “what’s right”; but on the other end, WALKING TALL attempts to address the notions of racism, corruption, and the consequences of street justice in scenes that individually, have some resonating moments but in the context of the entire film feel wonky. By the time the film reaches its surprisingly dark and somber conclusion, Karlson still somehow manages to make the film end on a strange kind of positive note seemingly suggesting the benefits of violent retribution. It’s all a bit confounding and the film does this time and time again never able to figure out how to mesh escapist thrills with somber realities.
To its credit, the film elevates its emotional highs and lows due to a solid sense of place and character that is established thanks in part to Jack A. Marta’s sense of framing that fully brings out the color of both the Tennessee landscape and the seedy innards of its lowly clubs and gambling dens. Furthermore, every performer, from the easy-going supportiveness of Felton Perry’s Obra to the ruthless maliciousness of Rosemary Murphy’s criminal mastermind, gives off a lived-in feel of their characters even if some of them like Hartman’s endlessly supportive wife, hardly get enough characterization besides their singular uses to Don Baker’s main character. Even so, the overall pacing of the story imbues that casual, lived-in air of its characters as the film takes its time setting up the world of McNair County and one man’s journey to clean it up. As a result, the film hits that issue of seeming like it’s going to end at certain points in the last act only to continue on despite never really establishing the feeling that it has told its entire story by the time it reaches its final reel.
When all is said and done, WALKING TALL is a “vigilante justice” movie that has an admirable goal in trying to come to terms with the consequences of one man’s attempts at trying to bring back “law and order”. While it never quite elevates over its predetermined genre, the film delivers enough down and dirty action and contemplations with violence that fit with almost any kind of viewer.