I’m going to get the cheap joke out of the way first here. ….When I finished watching this, my initial reaction was to joke to Roommate Russ: “This can’t have been a Buñuel film, I understood it!” But that reaction does a dis-service to what was a surprisingly nuanced film.
The whole film takes place on one of North Carolina’s barrier islands, where we first meet Traver (Bernie Hamilton), an African-American musician fleeing from a lynch mob. He’s stolen a boat to make his escape, and paddles to the island after running out of gas and springing a leak; it seems a good place to lay low, since it’s a private hunting park, largely unpopulated save for the groundskeeper Miller (Zachary Scott), and Evie (Key Meersman), the naive granddaughter of a beekeeper who also lives on the premises. Or, rather, lived there – since he has just died. Miller now has to set out for the mainland to get a coroner and to see who should take care of Evie now – but before he leaves, he notices that Evie’s blossomed into quite the attractive teen and starts thinking that maybe keeping her around after all would be kind of fun. Fetching the coroner can’t be helped, though, so he leaves Evie behind with some vague promises of getting her a pretty dress and “a talk when I get back”.
Evie may be past her childhood, but she’s still incredibly naive, and thinks nothing of it when Traver turns up asking for tools and some gas for his boat. She even gives Traver a gun and tags along to help him carry everything back, befriending Traver with idle chatter as he patches the leak. Traver intends to be gone by sunup – but oversleeps, and Miller finds him when he returns (innocently helped by Evie, who tells him everything). Miller gives chase, losing him in the swamps after shooting a hole in Traver’s boat. But Traver surprises him back at his cabin later, gun in hand, demanding more tools and the freedom to fix up his boat and leave in peace. It’s no skin off Miller’s nose, he decides – the coroner will be by tomorrow with a preacher to see to Evie’s grandfather’s burial, and if Traver oversleeps again, maybe they’ll capture him and spare Miller the trouble. And – hey, maybe he could even offer Traver Evie’s cabin for the night, which would be the perfect excuse to move Evie in with him so they can spend the night “talking”.
Yeah, that “talking” is in quotes for exactly the reason you think it is. It’s fortunately not depicted (save for some icky kissing), but it is strongly implied that Miller rapes Evie that night, taking advantage of an innocence so profound that she literally doesn’t think anything of it and is nearly matter-of-fact when she speaks to the minister (Claudio Brook) the next day. But while she’s talking to him, Miller is talking with Jackson (Crahan Denton), the boat driver who ferried the minister over; Jackson tells Miller that back in town they’re all looking for a black musician who supposedly raped a wealthy white woman. Miller knows exactly who he means, and as he and Jackson conduct a manhunt for Traver, the minister brainstorms about how to rescue Evie…
There are a lot of moments throughout where a lesser film would have done things very differently – Traver might have taken advantage of Evie, Miller might have tried killing Traver sooner. Evie might have suddenly realized what Miller had done to her and had a tantrum. The minister might have made a dramatic exit where he swept up Evie to bring her to a convent. But instead, we get Traver and Miller talking about both being veterans over dinner; or Jackson also figuring out what Miller’s doing to Evie and teasing him about it; and we even get the minister and Miller discussing whether Miller could possibly marry Evie someday. No one is all good or all evil here; the minister is a bit one-dimensional and a lot of his lines sound more like caricature, but the scene where he confronts Miller is surprisingly nuanced.
Buñuel also leans into Evie’s innocence pretty hard sometimes; when Miller and Traver are having a tense dinner in his cabin, Evie asks in wide-eyed innocence why Traver isn’t sitting at the table with them. “Don’t you like him?” she asks. “Why not be friends with him?” Key Meersman wasn’t an actress, and it looks like she only appeared in one other film after this before dropping back into obscurity; she maybe only had this one performance in her, and it’s practically a non-performance. I’ve found an article which mentions that Buñuel had so much trouble trying to direct her that he nearly packed in the whole movie in frustration. But Meersman’s nonchalant and flat line deliveries actually work here; she’s so naive that she doesn’t even know that her own rape is something she’s supposed to be upset about, so her mild bafflement is actually spot-on.
On the whole, the future is pretty unclear for all of our characters by the end – no one is completely punished, rescued, or vindicated. But everyone’s tale comes to an ending that ultimately seems right for their specific situation – and honestly, when’s the last time you saw that in a film?