Monday, February 22, 2010

U-Turn (1997)

Oliver Stone has made a career out of dramatizing real events and almost never stops just to tell a story. Even Any Given Sunday and Wall Street are meant to expose our cultural institutions. I really enjoy his presidential trilogy (JFK, Nixon, W.), whereas his Vietnam trilogy is a bit hit or miss, with Platoon, a bona fide masterpiece and Best Picture winner, leaving nowhere to go but down in subsequent efforts Born on the 4th of July (it reeks of apple pie and cheese and I find it nearly impossible to watch Tom Cruise in anything but Magnolia these days) and Heaven and Earth (which I remember being painfully dull in my first and only viewing some ten years ago). It's the odd man out films in his oeuvre that I find easiest to love but they also are easy to overlook in context of the other more outspoken cinematic history lessons he's known for delivering. These are the rare character driven films that are just there to tell a solid story without the polarizing impact and creative limitations of the biopic genre. Two such films are 1987's Talk Radio (which I hope to get to some other day) and 1997's U-Turn.

U-Turn was Stone's next film after the brilliant (and as they say "highly controversial") films Natural Born Killers and Nixon. U-Turn, on a certain level, feels like a film he made to further explore the new visual techniques he had been developing in those two prior films, a sort of thinking man's MTV editing style full of odd angles, filters, saturated colors, varied levels of film grain, etc. You get slightly different performance takes sometimes, or a quick cut to some sort of archival footage, or in this case, the captivating splendor of the Arizona landscape. There were hints of it in JFK and The Doors, Natural Born Killers of course blasted the lid right off and Nixon was an excellent hybrid of his more traditional and wild visions. This style, in the hands of a master, is a magnificent, immersive sensory experience. Stone is a smart collaborator as well, in this case employing the legendary Ennio Morricone (who I'm familiar with mostly for his work on several Brian DePalma films, most famously The Untouchables). The film also boasts one of the most outstanding ensemble casts ever outside of a Robert Altman film.

“You think bad, and bad is what you’ll get” says Darrell (an amazing turn from a virtually unrecognizable Billy Bob Thornton) to our protagonist Bobby (an especially spot on performance from Mr. Sean Penn). At some point in my third or fourth viewing of the film, those words stood out to me as truly being the central theme of the film. Self-fulfilling prophecy is the game our “hero” is playing and while it’s easy to look at his experiences as a series of bad luck encounters (which on a certain level they are), a keen eye will detect something else going on here, a tale of karmic debts. Sean Penn plays likeable pricks with a singular flair. He's got a true gift for antagonizing people (even when playing someone sympathetic like his Oscar winning turn as Harvey Milk). Here he plays a former tennis pro who is on the run due to a gambling debt which, as we soon learn, has already cost him two fingers and is quickly claiming whatever's left of his ethics and integrity as he spirals out of control down the drain of bad karma and worse luck. This piece would grow ten times longer if I discussed all the actors and actresses and what films of theirs I like, but let me quickly entice you with the following names; Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Claire Danes and especially the aforementioned Billy Bob Thornton. It's a rough crew of shysters to be sure.

We get a glimpse of how uniquely doomed our hero is within the first 5 minutes when he not only crosses, but actually runs over a black cat and subsequently has his car instantaneously fail him mere seconds after he angrily shouts "fuck you" to a passing cop. There's a school of thought that encourages people to envision their goals and make their dreams come true through the power of positive thinking. The suggestion in this film (going back to that bit of free advice from Darrell the auto mechanic) seems to be that acting the opposite ("thinking bad") can cause the world around you to sling as much mud your way as humanly possible. Penn's character seems to egg on his fate and bring about his own disasters through his prevailing hostility, deception and overall bad manners. As he sits in his damaged car, Bobby quite literally finds himself at a fork in the road, the closest town is the ironically named Superior, Arizona, an off the grid type desert (and deserted) town where Darrell is the first resident we have the displeasure of meeting. I really can't say enough good things about Thornton's hilarious and slightly arch performance (and as an added bonus, fan's of musical group WEEN will recognize the sounds of "Piss Up a Rope" from their country album and have an instant feel for the kind of swarthy but playful mischief we have in store). Penn's prized 1964 1/2 Mustang Convertible has blown a radiator hose...and it will take a while to be ready. Not wanting to spend a moment longer in the company of Darrell, Penn walks into the thriving metropolis of downtown Superior.

Arriving in town, the film takes one of its few missteps as we have our first encounter with the blind prophet, a tired cliché not improved upon by Jon Voight's hammy Native American impersonation. Someone really needs to tell him that cheap accents and an unusual hairpiece do not in and of themselves count as acting (a lesson I would much more kindly suggest to Nicolas Cage as well). Still, the dialogue given to the character and the lessons he espouses are solid enough and Voight's mishandling of the performance does little to detract from the film as a whole. It is an intricately woven tapestry of a particular brand of small town life. The kind of swept under the rug dustbowl communities that feel entirely alien, populated by characters both immediately familiar and simultaneously, highly exaggerated and surreal. There's a kind of live wire manic energy coursing through the film, a constant forward momentum. Our "hero" is plunging headlong into the abyss of his own soul.

Fortunately (in 1997 at least) he has Jennifer Lopez to keep him occupied. She has never again approached being as interesting, sexy and dangerous as she is here in the guise of femme fatale Grace, a well written role with shades of Chinatown's Evelyn Mulwray. She's the young wife of town real estate mogul Nick Nolte (in full on grizzly bear mode here, aggressively chewing the scenery). She's also the object of lust for everyone who meets her it seems, from the town Sherriff (Powers Boothe) to, of course, Penn himself. If her later work in a slew of B-movies and nauseating pop tunes failed to convince you, there is a reason J. Lo's a star. I mean, I love Money Train as much as the next man but I've never been sold on her acting prowess. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that it's the director bringing out the best in a performer like when Martin Scorsese guided Sharon Stone to her one and only brilliant turn as Ginger in Casino.

What I suppose you'd call the main plot begins after Nolte's angry husband bursts in on his wife Grace about to quickly advance from a stranger to a lover with Penn's drifter. After being punched in the face, Penn storms off back toward town but is promptly picked up by his assailant, Nolte, who makes an unsavory proposition. Would Bobby be willing to kill Grace in exchange for the princely sum of $50,000? While she may have pissed him off a bit with all the hot and cold behavior and mind games, Bobby doesn't need the money per se. He's got that and much more in his backpack. Money that's supposed to pay off the gangsters that cut off his fingers, money he quickly loses as Superior, Arizona's town grocery store is robbed at gunpoint, fate intervening and ultimately leaving a pile of bloody shredded money lying on the floor. So, now that he's desperate and has gangsters in hot pursuit can he dig deep enough into his damaged soul to find the murderer that Nolte spotted right away? Or, if Bobby can weasel around just short of murdering people, as double cross after double cross comes down, can he walk away with the money, the girl and his life? Or any combination of the 3 for that matter?

I've mentioned a surprise or two already but have stopped short of getting near the final act of this film or the many wonderful moments that occur along the way (Joaquin Phoenix as Tobey N. Tucker/TNT is, in these 5 minutes, doing the best work of his career as far as I’m concerned). So go see it will ya? It's a truly rare piece of cinema and one in a short list of films that manages to be a solid, entertaining genre picture on one level and a powerful, spiritual, brain tickler on the other. Grade: A- (knocked down a peg for giving Jon Voight's irritating character 3 or 4 times the screen time of "TNT" who I could frankly watch an entire movie about).