Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: U-Turn (1997)

U Turn (1997)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: John Ridley based on his novel Stray Dogs.
Starring: Sean Penn (Bobby Cooper), Jennifer Lopez (Grace McKenna), Nick Nolte (Jake McKenna), Billy Bob Thornton (Darrell), Jon Voight (Blind Man), Powers Boothe (Sheriff Potter), Joaquin Phoenix (Toby N. Tucker), Claire Danes (Jenny), Liv Tyler (Girl in Bus Station), Laurie Metcalf (Bus Station Clerk), Julie Hagerty (Flo).

Back in 1997, Oliver Stone’s U Turn was viewed as an odd choice for the director – and ended up being a critical and commercial failure –and it hasn’t really gotten much of a critical re-appraisal in the years since. If anything, it now looks more clearly like the beginning of the end for Stone – a director who mainly had one success after another for a decade, winning two Best Director Oscars, being nominated for a third, and constantly being a director whose films – whether you loved or hated – had to be reckoned with. Now, coming on the heels of two of his most controversial films – Natural Born Killers and Nixon – he made this – a very strange little exercise in neo noir. The film lacks the ambition of Stone’s best films – hell, there’s hardly any ambition in the film at all, which often feels like it’s just Stone and company goofing around. And perhaps, that is precisely what it was – which, coming off some very heavy films, you can kind of appreciate. Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for U Turn – which despite its obvious flaws, is a distinctly bizarre film. It almost reminds me of something David Lynch would make – although he would follow it deeper into the surreal abyss than Stone does. U Turn isn’t a great film – it isn’t even necessarily a very good one – but it’s bizarre and unforgettable just the same.

The film stars Sean Penn as Bobby – a man driving across the Arizona desert in his 1964 ½ Mustang Convertible, with thousands of dollars in his backpack, and just a few days to get to California to pay off some very bad men who have already done some very bad things to him, and will do worse if he doesn’t get them money soon. It’s Bobby’s luck that he breaks down on the outskirts of Superior, Arizona – a one horse town if ever there was one – and he is able to get his car to the lone mechanic in town, Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), a cross eyed hillbilly we immediately assume will be the weirdest character in the movie, and we are wrong. The car needs a new radiator hose – and Darrell says he can probably find one, somewhere. Just give him a few hours. Had Bobby known what was coming, he probably just would have stayed at the garage with Darrell. But instead, he walks into town and precedes to meet one crazy character after another – and get sucked in the domestic arrangement between Jake (Nick Nolte) and his much younger wife Grace (Jennifer Lopez). It doesn’t take long for each to approach Bobby about killing the other – each with different incentives. Money from Jake, and money, and something else, from Grave. There are other strange characters – a Sheriff (Powers Boothe) who seems to cruise around all day looking menacing, a headstrong teenager (Joaquin Phoenix) and his flirty girlfriend (Claire Danes), a blind Indian beggar with a dead dog (Jon Voight).

The film is clearly a take on film noir (specifically The Postman Always Rings Twice) – where an innocent man is suckered into murder by a femme fatale, and gets more than he bargained for in the process. The twist here is that Bobby is hardly innocent when the movie begins – if he was, he wouldn’t be there in the first place – and the fact is that he steps into a town full of nothing but crazy people. U Turn really is the most damning portrait of small town American life this side of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. This is one of those sun noirs – where instead of everything taking place in the dark back alleys of the big city, everything happens right out in the light where everyone can see. It’s the first screenplay – based on his own novel – by future Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), and it is certainly bizarre. One of its flaws is that it shows why most noir films run 90 minutes or less – at just over two hours long, there is not enough story to sustain the entire runtime of U Turn, which runs out of gas in its last act, full of double and triple crosses. Stone over directs some part of the movie – adding unnecessary visual flourishes to many scenes, as if to make the film feel like more than what it is.

But even with the flaws, the performances for the most part work. Penn is very good as the put upon Bobby – the type of character we normally hate, but this time have to relate to. Lopez is at her sexiest here (well, not quite – that would be the following year’s Out of Sight – but its close) – as Grace, who seems sexually aggressive and crazy in equal doses. Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Voight all go over the top – but hell, what do you expect them to do with roles like this?

Despite its obvious flaws, U Turn is a film that has stuck with me. I haven’t seen the film in probably 15 years, and probably only twice in total – and yet it is amazing how much I remembered of it. The film is bizarre to be sure – and Stone’s over direction is both what hurts the film, yet also makes it stand out so much in my memory. In retrospect, yes, U Turn was the beginning of the end of Stone’s time as one of the top American directors. After Nixon, he would never really direct a film that enjoyed the kind of success that his career had until that point. But as we’ll see in the upcoming parts of this series, there is still a lot to love about Stone, post Nixon. He may have been done making masterpieces – but he wasn’t done making interesting films. And U Turn – for all its flaws, is one of them.

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