The Cracker Man is an off-beat drama that explores the ties that bind us to past and place, the emotions and actions that break those ties, and the redemptive, transforming power of grace. To contemporary Southern audiences, the usual portrayals of the region are incomplete, inaccurate and often lack the humor and paradox which typify the culture. Though a "period" piece, this film is adapted from a popular work of modern Southern Literature and portrays a version of the South that is neither benighted nor cliched.
Nine summers ago - she was in her mid-twenties then - her momma and daddy went in a wreck ten miles away. They left her the farm, the truck and great-grandpa, and Gloria Turner has nurtured and loved what she has inherited. Though this inheritance is a constant reminder of what she has lost and what - with no friends or family - she has foregone, it has become the duty that defines her place in the world, and she cherishes it - her grandpa most of all. Everyday she gets him dressed, slides him into the red wagon, wheels him around the yard and parks him under the trees so he can wave at the leaves and watch her work. Every evening after dinner she saves a dance just for him. As a person, he's all she's got.
The ceremony that honors her routine falls on the Fourth of July, her great-grandpa's birthday; and this one marks his hundredth. So on the way back from town and her customary battle with the men in the hardware store, the fireworks stand seems like it was planted there to flag her down. A man don't live to be a hundred with nothing more than a cherry bomb to mark the day.
Underneath the little roof is a counter, and inside on the floor a man laid out sleeping. Hank's lean and dangerous, maybe a little younger than she is. Trickster, part snake oil salesman, rainmaker and evangelist, this firecracker peddler sells more than paper and powder, smoke and noise. His rockets are the stuff of change and redemption. As the conversation becomes warm, humorous and flirtatious, something in the world and something in Gloria comes alive. For the price of the fireworks he offers to put on the show. She prolongs the moment, enjoying the current that charges their conversation. "Funny the way it is with a man. You talking to him, he's talking back, and all the time it's something else you're talking about." Borne on this current is the tide of change.
That day and the next, she's a whirlwind: the chores, the cake - with a hundred candles the damn thing looks like a porcupine - the ironing and the cleaning and grandpa - she's gonna fix him up the prettiest he's ever been. Company's coming and there's so much to do. A jar of tea slips and breaks, and just as quickly, so does Gloria's composure. For a moment, questions, desires and fears, long quiet, clamor at her, and nothing around looks quite the same. Her anger at this weakness drives her insecurity into the background, and focuses on an overdue Hank. Maybe a better offer came up, more money than she could afford to pay. And her without so much as a single sparkler. She fights with herself, battling back and forth between hope and despair, practicality and foolishness.
But then his truck rolls into the yard. She reins in her emotions, reminds herself of the occasion and introduces Hank to the only member of her family. They carry Grandpa out to the middle of the pasture, and after cake and lemonade, the show begins. It's all Hank has described and more. The fireworks are instruments of grace, redeemers that transform the world with the purest joy. In cascades of fire and rivulets of light, one world ends. Grandpa dies, a shower of sparks sets fire to the house and the truck. Even the animals are scattered. But another world begins. "I ain't takin' off," Hank yells, and Gloria's life, forever altered by a kind of grace, begins anew. She loses all that surrounds her, all that is familiar and cherished, but she gains something uniquely her own.
In both Southern literature and Southern history we expect things to go wrong. And we are seldom disappointed. Though such expectation is responsible for the fatalism so often associated with the region, it is also responsible for the sense of life as contingent, of humankind as a small scene in a much larger drama. "The Cracker Man" pits the inexorable forces of family and fate against the equally powerful forces of two peoples wills. The result is a dramatic insight into the human condition.