The Bad, the Bad, and the Bad
“Delicious film noir” U Turn is one of the movies showcased at the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Forum in an Ennio Morricone frenzy month. The 78-year-old composer, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award (after five unsuccessful nominations) at the Oscars, has scored over seven hundred films -- sometimes as Leo Nichols or Nicola Piovani “to avoid seeming to be cornering the market.”
What the ear easily notices in U Turn is the common, facile and intended ironic barrage of country and standard selections like Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour’s upbeat “It’s a Good Day” (which it isn’t). But in the end it is Morricone’s once innovative turning from Hollywood Copland symphonic to Italian folk-John Cage-Beach Boys, from stirring soup to odd instruments, voice snips and natural sounds, that bolsters the film’s take on the indifference at best, hostility at worst, of the visually magnificent but Darwinian American landscape. The characters plan mightily to escape their lot, only to be thwarted by nature and by the unscrupulous logic of others.
Executive producer John Ridley’s short novel Stray Dogs, from which he did the screenplay, pointed its title toward Peckinpah’s violent “cultured” vs. “brute” Straw Dogs, but the film’s red corn syrup overload more serves Oliver Stone’s “one of the joys of going to the movies was that it was trashy, and we should never lose that.” Outside that screenwriter and director’s normal controversial pictures of the Republic’s wars, drugs, greed and assassinations, U Turn harks back three years to group with his Natural Born Killers, another movie pulp (not surprisingly from an old Tarantino script), supposedly reflecting on media and mass love of bestial blood. “Lust, violence, God, love and mortality . . . those Great American themes.”
An un-nuanced version of the likes of Double Indemnity passed through Leone without the tongue-in-cheek and Bad Day at Black Rock without the skill at showing true violence, the film must depend for its appeal on style, since the cast members have no maneuvering room in which to build up character and so are pretty comic book (or “pulp”). Nor, aside from survival, is motivation all that clear, purposely so: everyone covers his or her back with on-the-fly backstories, one of which commentators accept as denoting incest but which may just as well be another false trail.
Because it is broadly primal, the story itself is straightforward despite an annoying excess of teaser insets, often of stark landscape and feral creatures, obsessive reminders of natural danger, the animal beneath man’s surface and, in a rattler’s flicking tongue, the speak-with-forked-tongue protagonists. Petty non-killer criminal Bobbie Cooper (Sean Penn) nevertheless packs a pistol driving west to repay the thirty thousand dollars which have already recently cost him two hedge-scissored fingers in a rainy urban alley. Opening credit roadkill does not give him any pause for thought, but the “’64½ Mustang” convertible’s radiator-hose leak in desert Arizona does. Twenty-nine miles from Globe, the sign indicates that Superior is only three and that “U Turn Okay” -- a later equally unnecessary one proclaims, “No U Turn.”
Population-3, 468 Superior is a not unrealistic parody of isolated inbred hamlets, though the film is unaware of its location within the Tonto National Forest and the ominous fact that tonto means “fool” in Spanish. As in Sayles’s Lone Star, everyone will prove to be interconnected and interracial sex and hatred just about on the surface. Among the usual local election, eatery and blue-eyed Jesus Is Lord ads, sits filthy Harlan’s Garage, run by a deceptively shrewd yokel Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton) with mossy teeth.
Awaiting overpriced repairs, the city slicker unlucky-till-now-in-love heads for a bite and, not in this order, encounters suspicious Sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe), a maybe blind philosophical half-breed Vietnam vet beggar (John Voigt), man-winking waitress Flo (Julie Haggerty), man-hungry teen Jenny (Claire Danes) and her jealous, mentally and speech-challenged beau Toby N. Tucker aka TNT (Joaquin Phoenix). Also tease Grace McKenna, whom he picks up and accompanies home with not much effort. The rôle of this abused (but maybe liking it) Tex-Mex wife is the best of singer Jennifer Lopez’ career, perhaps playing no more than her then-self. As the two get down to business her wealthy older husband, and her dead mother’s lover, Jake (a toothy Nick Nolte), catches them in the clinch and lays Bobbie out.
Gun-addict hubby soon apologizes to the stranger and off-handedly offers him thirteen thousand to kill the young wife who repeatedly cuckolds him. His own repayment stash gone in blood and buckshot during a bungled convenience store holdup modeled after the Tarantino-written From Dusk Till Dawn, Bobbie agrees to his first act of mortal violence. At the moment of truth, he cannot kill the beauty, makes interrupted love to her, and is tempted by the counter-offer of herself, her future, and the hundred thousand (really two) cash Jake hides in the luxurious house.
In infinitely gory, infinitely graphic detail, as the “blind” beggar sees it will, the film traps and squashes each and every one in the net of his or her own backstabbing. Mainstreamers, beware. But viewers who don’t need depth and can ignore technique overkill along with social critique nonsense, should enjoy the bumpy ride where a safety sign warns that “Death Rides the Highways.”
(Released by Sony Pictures Entertainment and rated “R” for strong violence, sexuality and language.)