December 09, 1985 12:00 PM

It’s not hard to get cranked up for a film of such formidable firsts: Fool for Love is the first of Pulitzer prizewinner Sam Shepard’s some 40 plays to be adapted to the screen. It also represents the first major appearance by Shepard, now 42, as an actor in one of his own works. Shepard is an original (there’s never been a serious dramatist who was also a Hollywood dreamboat); he’s a maverick who adopts violent actions, absurdist humor and poetic speeches to take theater into uncharted realms. For this film Shepard found a kindred spirit in director Robert Altman, whose recent experiments with filmed drama (Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Streamers; Secret Honor) have broken new ground. Their collaboration bashes its way into your head and heart. Like most of Shepard, though, Fool is also ornery, exasperating and often stifled by symbols. The scene is a seedy New Mexico motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert. A cowboy, Shepard, drives up in a tin trailer crowded with the horses he uses at rodeos. But he is after a different prize now. It’s Kim (The Natural) Basinger, a short-order cook who is also the cowboy’s half sister. Their father, played by a ghostly Harry Dean Stanton, occasionally comments on the action. Altman’s fluid camera work helps lighten the symbolic load and heighten the kiss-kiss-bang-bang relationship of Shepard and Basinger. The gorgeous (and, as a result, underrated) Basinger arrives as a star, turning the waitress into a tortured child, who wants to kill her obsession with Shepard by killing him. “Right in the moment when you’re sure you’ve got me buffaloed,” she tells him, “that’s when you’ll die.” And Shepard subtly reveals the fears that haunt his macho cowboy. He insults Basinger’s klutz of a boyfriend, tersely done by Randy Quaid, and lassos objects (a jukebox, a bedpost) that replace the truths he can’t get a fix on. Shepard uses his crooked front teeth, rawboned body and wild, low cunning to create a performance among the year’s finest. He and Basinger ignite a sexual bonfire whose embers are haunting. Like it or not, understand it fully or not, this movie is going to shake you. (R)

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