Goin' South (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: May 01, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Goin' South (4K UHD Review)


Jack Nicholson

Release Date(s)

1978 (March 26, 2024)


Paramount Pictures (Cinématographe/Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B


Jack Nicholson’s name doesn’t always spring to mind when discussing actors who have tried their hand at directing, which is at least partially due to the fact that he never any found box office success behind the camera. In the broad spectrum of actor/directors, there have been prolific filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Ida Lupino, and there have been one-shot wonders (for good or for ill) like Charles Laughton and Marlon Brando. Nicholson and his fellow New Hollywood actor/directors Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Beatty has only helmed five feature films, but most of them were financially successful or at least garnered positive critical attention (Reds even netted Beatty an Oscar). Dennis Hopper made a splash with his debut film Easy Rider, but he struggled to find an audience after that, despite some remarkable later efforts like Out of the Blue. Nicholson helmed just three films over the span of two decades, none of which were able to find an audience, but they’re all noteworthy for different reasons.

Nicholson’s debut Drive, He Said is a raw examination of the counterculture that’s every bit as interesting in that regard as was Easy Rider, and his final film The Two Jakes is a no less audacious attempt to continue the story of Jakes Gittes past one of the most decisive and iconic endings in cinematic history. In between those two points, Nicholson made... a rambling Western comedy? As strange as it may seem, that’s exactly what he created with Goin’ South in 1978. While Drive, He Said has been reassessed over the decades, the initial critical reaction was generally hostile, and the box office was nonexistent. Goin’ South may have been Nicholson’s way of trying to rebound from what must have felt like a personal failure. Yet the Western genre was already fading by end of the Seventies, so if Nicholson was trying to make a comeback, he stubbornly walked his own idiosyncratic path in order to do so. Of course, that’s exactly the way that his character in Goin’ South has lived his whole life, so the story may have had some personal appeal for the actor/director.

The journey that the story of Goin’ South ended up taking was no less rambling than the final film, with a protracted development process and four credited screenwriters: John Herman Shaner, Al Ramrus, Charles Shyer, and Alan Mandel. Henry Lloyd Moon (Nicholson) is a penny-ante bandit who tried to flee to Mexico to escape a posse sent by the sheriff of Longhorn, Texas (Richard Bradford), but even the Rio Grande can’t keep him from meeting his fate. He’s sentenced to hang, but is saved at the last minute by a Civil War era law that allows the women of the town to marry a convicted criminal as long as they take responsibility for him. He ends up marrying Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen), who wants his help working a hidden gold mine on her property. The arrangement puts Moon even farther into the crosshairs of the sheriff’s deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who had his eye on Julia. Towfield enlists the help of another deputy (John Belushi) to try to trap Moon again, and Moon also ends up drawing the interest of his former gang members (Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Morris, Danny DeVito, and Tracey Walter). Moon is going to have a helluva time navigating between all of them, but he’s going to have an even harder time navigating the relationship with his new bride. Goin’ South also stars Gerald H. Reynolds and Ed Begley, Jr. (watch for Lin Shaye and Anne Ramsey in cameos as the some of the townsfolk).

Goin’ South may be a Western, but it’s also a romantic comedy, and the comedy here is incongruously broad for such an otherwise laid-back, amiable film. It’s also quite earthy despite the PG rating, with even the title serving as a raunchy double entendre. The performances are equally broad, with Nicholson, Lloyd, and Belushi doing everything in their power to upstage each other. The stereotypes are broad as well, since Belushi is playing a Mexican character with all of the subtlety and sensitivity that he brought to Bluto in Animal House. Still, aside from a questionable moment where Moon ties down his bride and may (or may not) have his way with her, it’s all so good-natured and low-key that it remains inoffensive. That’s also true of the fleeting moments of violence in the film, including a shootout where everyone is so incompetent that they can’t even hit each other accidentally. There’s a very good chance that Nicholson’s eccentric staging of this scene inspired David Zucker, Jim Abrams, and Jerry Zucker with a similar moment in the first episode of their television series Police Squad (a gag that they later stole from themselves for The Naked Gun 2-½.)

Still, Goin’ South is basically just a story about two people getting to know each other despite themselves. Moon and Jullia are equally self-centered; Moon may be using Julia to escape the hangman’s noose, but Julia is using him for free labor. Neither one of them is willing to make the effort to understand the other. Goin’ South may end in a Mexican standoff between Nicholson’s abandoned gang members and Julia’s would-be paramour, but the whole film has already been a Mexican standoff between the reluctant husband and his no less reluctant wife. If either one of them was willing to explain what they’re doing and why, or if either one of them was willing to take the time to listen to the other one doing just that, then the whole story would resolve in minutes. Yet it’s their recalcitrance that makes this relationship so plausible, and it’s ultimately an affecting one. They’re both stubborn, selfish people who deserve each other, and yet it takes some time and a lot of miles together before they understand that fact. In other words, it’s a marriage.

Goin’ South may have failed to ignite the box office in 1978, but It’s a landmark film not so much because Nicholson directed it, but rather due to his casting choices. Not because of his fellow One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest veterans Lloyd and DeVito, or even because of John Belushi, but rather because Nicholson decided to take a chance on a struggling young actor who had been waiting tables while hoping for her big break. As a result, the opening credits for Goin’ South contain four of the most monumental words in the history of the English language: “And introducing Mary Steenburgen.”

The world has never been the same since.

Cinematographer Nestor Almendros shot Goin’ South on 35mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version is based on a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, graded for High Dynamic Range in HDR10 only, but there are no other details available. Goin’ South is a Paramount title, so presumably they supplied the scan, but it’s not clear where the rest of the work was done. Given Paramount’s somewhat tenuous relationship with film grain, it’s possible that Vinegar Syndrome did some of it in-house, since the grain here has been left completely intact. Everything looks natural and filmic, without any traces of the digital processing that can sometimes mar Paramount releases.

Once the optically printed opening titles are over, the rest of the film looks as sharp and clear as the original cinematography would allow. Almendros favored natural lighting and practical light sources because he felt that the lighting always had to be justified by something in the scene. The lighting in Goin’ South is generally diffuse, softening the image rather than providing hard edges. Details like Jack Nicholson’s unruly beard are well-resolved under broad daylight, but they can get murkier under low light conditions. The black levels in the darkest scenes (like inside the mine) tend to be elevated, without much detail in them, but that’s the natural consequences of how Almendros exposed the negative in those circumstances. Damage is mostly limited to a few very faint scratches, although there are a few shots that look rougher due to dupe elements being used, and not because of any obvious need for optical work—the closeup of Nicholson at 34:18, for example. There’s also a single shot that appears to suffer from some kind of layer separation at 42:04. Minor flaws aside, this is a gorgeous rendition of Almendros’ unforgettable work as a cinematographer.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The dialogue is clear, there’s little noise or distortion, and the wry score from Perry Botkin Jr. and Van Dyke Parks sounds good. (Ry Cooder contributed the jaunty song Available Space, and Cooder fans will instantly recognize his distinctive slide guitar work.)

Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K Ultra HD release of Goin’ South is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. It’s part of their Cinématographe sub-label, and is currently available in a Limited Edition of 6,000 copies. The disc itself is contained in a simple but striking clothbound mediabook with essays by Chris Shields and Marc Eliot. The mediabook is housed in a J-card slipcase with a ribbon to help remove the book (a nice touch). The whole package was designed was by Adam Maida. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:


  • Audio Commentary with Simon Abrams


  • Audio Commentary with Simon Abrams
  • Nestor Almendros: A Man with a Camera (17:14)
  • Jack of Three Trades: In Focus on Jack Nicholson the Director (23:11)

The commentary features author, critic, and self-described Jack Nicholson enthusiast Simon Abrams. Abrams explains the challenges that Nicholson faced in getting the film made, and how the troubled nature of the production influenced his own performance. (That’s something that would crop up again in The Two Jakes.) At its heart, Goin’ South is a marriage farce and an extension of the creative obsessions that Nicholson had already explored in Drive, He Said. Abrams says that Nicholson was heavily influenced by controversial psychoanalyst William Reich, and reads from relevant passages from Reich’s work. Abrams also says that Nicholson was influenced by Don Berry’s Western novel Moontrap, and that Nicholson actually wanted to make an existential Western based on that book, in the vein of the earlier Westerns that he had made with Monte Hellman. When that didn’t work out, he went a drastically different direction with Goin’ South. Abrams reads from Moontrap as well, and he closes by reading from the mixed reviews that Goin’ South received. Not surprisingly, Pauline Kael was particularly harsh, even taking the time to go after Nestor Almendros. There’s not a lot of practical information on the making of the film here, but Abrams still does a fine job of placing it into context.

Nestor Almendros: A Man with a Camera is a video essay by Samm Deighan, who gives some insight into Almendro’s personal background and how that influenced him as a filmmaker. She discusses his experience in the French New Wave working with directors like Éric Rohmer and François Truffaut, as well as his influential collaborations with the New Hollywood filmmakers of the Seventies like Monte Hellman and Terrance Malick. Almendros took inspiration from painters like Johannes Vermeer and Maxfield Parrish. Deighan also covers the importance role that Almendros played as a queer filmmaker. Jack of Three Trades: In Focus on Jack Nicholson the Director is a video essay by Daniel Kremer, who intermingles clips of Nicholson’s work with an interview that he conducted with actor/director Henry Jaglom. Jaglom had a small role in Drive, He Said, and he has plenty of unfiltered thoughts about Nicholson’s work (even if he gets confused about a few of the details). Kremer traces Nicholson’s movement through counterculture films like Easy Rider and behind the camera with Drive, He Said, then moves on to Goin’ South and the complicated history of The Two Jakes. Be sure to keep watching until the credits are finished, because Kremer throws one more story from Jaglom.

The Cinématographe label has a mission statement to “explore the wide breadth of American moviemaking, spanning numerous genres and scales of production,” all of it under the watchful eye of Vinegar Syndrome’s Justin LaLiberty. With an already impressive catalogue including diverse titles like Red Rock West, Little Darlings, Goin’ South, Dangerous Game, and Touch, they’re definitely living up to their principles with everything that they’ve done to date. Goin’ South is an appealingly quirky but neglected American film, one that’s worthy of rediscovery, and this beautiful new 4K release is the best possible way to do that.

- Stephen Bjork

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