Bobby Garfield (David Morse) is a middle-aged photographer with a family now, but he is prompted to think back to his childhood days when he receives a letter from the town he grew up in telling him that one of his old friends has died and inviting him to the funeral. The news plunges him into the waters of rememberance, and he leaves his home behind, his wife and daughter vacationing, to travel to the funeral and pay his respects. After the service, he is catching up with an acquaintance when he asks about his childhood sweetheart Carol - but when told she is dead, he is understandably shocked...
The Stephen King collection of linked novellas Hearts in Atlantis featured four stories, and Low Men in Yellow Coats was the first of them, set in 1960. This is what was adapted for the film, not the actual story that bears its name which was a college-based tale about an out of control card game, and so star Anthony Hopkins was landed with giving a short speech about Atlantis and growing up with a broken heart by screenwriter William Goldman to explain away the title. But if there's one thing that this did right, it was to let Hopkins speak.
With his rich tones, the actor looked to be relishing the nostalgic glow of Bobby's reminiscences, recalling the time Bobby was an eleven-year-old boy and living with his single parent mother (Hope Davis) who was struggling to make ends meet. Into their lives arrived Hopkins' character Ted Brautigan, a mystery man who seems friendly enough, but whom Bobby's mother does not trust, having a poor opinion of males in general, including her own son. Of course, to Bobby this fellow might as well be Santa Claus, and he ends up reading the newspaper aloud for a small fee for Ted so he may save up for the bicycle his mother cannot afford for him.
Even with a fairly brief tale like this one, not a short story exactly but not the usual doorstep-sized King offering, director Scott Hicks struggles to contain the themes and atmosphere of the original, hitting various points along the way without much resonance. The King version was a part of his Dark Tower series - Brautigan turns up in one of the novels - but here it is kept vague about who precisely is tracking him down, the "low men" he warns of (although there are hints in this case they are from the government). In addition to reading for him, Bobby is instructed to watch out for these sinister chaps and report back to Brautigan if he notices anything.
But this is a coming of age tale as well, and the manner in which it is rendered with golden sunlight and a park where the children - Bonny, Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar) - play means that sentimentality elbows its way into what should be a clearer-eyed narrative. The darker elements are there and prevent this from drowning in a nostalgic treacle, with Bobby's mother raped by her boss on a business trip and Carol injured by the local bully, but the most interesting thing this has to say is its illustration of how authority can let you down and even damage you with their poor choices, whether it's those chasing Brautigan for his psychic powers, or Bobby's mother endlessly criticising his late father who might not have been a bad sort after all. But the yearning for a flawed yet vital past is there, laid on so thick that the film becomes helplessly morose. Music by Mychael Danna.