2016 Film Essays

Neaux Reel Idea: The Southern Sage


Jeff Nichols’ 2016 film Midnight Special features the supporting graces, albeit brief, from one David Jensen. He plays a reformed cult follower named Elden, living the simple domestic life, alone, in Louisiana. The character takes on some on-the-run adults and an especially powerful child, providing some temporary rest and moments of clarity. His hair a mess and his face unshaven, Elden walks about his home with an air of mystery, almost more so than the government agents and religious leaders of the film. Such simple gestures, like preparing bedrooms and handing out blankets, carry added weight and background with the looks he gives and the cadences he speaks. Most assuredly, this is not a wasted bit role.

I affectionately refer to Mr. Jensen often as “The Southern Sage,” which is quite the heavy endearment from me. According to his IMDB profile, he’s in his sixties, and slightly older than my father — the two, I feel, would get along well. Jensen, whether in a supporting or more prominent role, typically plays up his current age with a dash of reserved and accepted wisdom, wearing truth and experience in his walk, his eyes and his smile or frown. Similar to how Mickey Rourke had an edge with his scarred up body and troubled past in The Wrestler, you can almost read Jensen’s story through his behavior and disposition. There is always confidence in his step, the kind that comes with decades of living, and a sense of regret and nostalgia in his shoulders. His heart and mind are at the same speed, but don’t have the same thoughts. He represents, with astonishing accuracy and complexity, the working class southern gentleman.

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Years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Eddie Jemison and John Mese about their film King of Herrings, which is a modern throwback that mashes the stylings of Woody Allen with Tom Waits. Jensen plays a fellow bar and diner knockabout, usually having to be the ear to everyone’s problems and the raspy voice of reason (a walking confessional, basically). Years later, he played a similar character in the Hurricane Katrina-era film The King of New Orleans, this time as a taxi driver. Almost literally a mobile confessional. Both films feature the height of Jensen’s skills, the advice giver who could use a little help himself; the walking and working stiff who shines as a respectable man of lesser means and great spirit.

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It’s shocking to me how much he resembles my father in speech, thought and walk. It’s shocking to me how, even in small roles like a defense lawyer in Free State of Jones, he’s memorable and on point. David Jensen may be the most reliable performer of accrued wisdom and lifelong worker representation that southern film productions have. I don’t think it’s unfair to typecast him as “The Southern Sage” when he fits the bill so well. It’s a most deserving label.

Bill Arceneaux is an independent film critic from New Orleans and member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association. His favorite David Lynch work? Inland Empire. And Batman v Superman continues to puzzle him. Follow him on Twitter @billreviewsand visit his support page at patreon.com/billreviews