Sean Penn Has A Bad Day At Black Rock While Trying To Get Out Of Red Rock West
By James DiGiovanna
OLIVER STONE HAS always been one of America's worst directors, starting with the comically awful The Hand, continuing through the inexplicably Academy Award-winning farce Platoon, and up to the psychedelically stupid The Doors. It was, however, with The Doors that he began to show just what he might be good at.
While Platoon and JFK were made unbearable by the oversimplification of complex issues and Stone's ability to be pedantically moralizing while remaining shockingly ignorant of his subject, The Doors at least showed that, as an exploitation director, he had some chops. Filled with drugs, sex and tilted camera angles, The Doors remained hard to sit through, but at least it didn't have pretensions of social relevance.
Natural Born Killers continued this trend. While it was, ostensibly, a commentary on the way the media conflates notoriety and celebrity, it worked much more on the level of a low-budget '70s crime-chic film like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry or Big Bad Mama, only with a massive budget.
Given his unlimited funding, Stone pulled out all the stops on effects, constantly cutting, switching angles, changing film stock, using distortion lenses, and basically going with every trick out of the experimental and schlock director's handbooks.
Stone's latest, U-Turn, is rife with these tricks--and they really are nothing but tricks, as all the cute moves with cameras do nothing to enhance the story. In fact, it's difficult to keep your eyes on the screen as the strobe-like cutting becomes almost nauseating.
The problem with all of the "experimental" techniques that Stone (and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who was put to better use in Scorcese's Casino) piles into this film is that this is not an experimental film, it's really a standard narrative, and you can't just tack artsy camera work on to a violent thriller and expect there to be a payoff. The best experimental films either eschew narrative in favor of playing with the potential of the camera, in the tradition of Stan Brakhage, or use jarring techniques sparingly and in the service of the plot, as Bergman did in Persona. When, as in U-Turn, something strange happens to the visual aspect of the film every few seconds, it's difficult to care about the storyline. This is especially problematic for this film in that it's so dense with story.
Its plot is a combination of Red Rock West, Bad Day at Black Rock and The Postman Always Rings Twice, only with twice the blood and beatings. Sean Penn, as down-on-his-luck stereotype Bobby Cooper, finds himself stuck in a small town outside of Globe, Arizona, with no money, a mob hitman coming for him, the wife of the town's richest citizen hot for his ass, her husband trying to hire him to kill her, the sheriff suspiciously tailing him, and a young tough looking to beat him up in order to impress his girlfriend. If those aren't enough plot elements, Jon Voight appears in impossibly dense makeup as a wise old Native American who dispenses pointlessly profound advice each time Penn crosses his path.
All of this often adds up to funny and suspenseful scenes, and Penn is, as always, perfectly in character. His acting is perhaps the one thing that keeps attention on the plot while Stone's camera goes spinning off into space, as the other actors play their parts to cartoony excess. Still, having one seemingly normal person stuck in a hellish spot with a crowd of vaguely threatening, two-dimensional characters is a conceit of this kind of story, and it often works here to entertaining effect. Nonetheless, the limits on the other characters can be disappointing, especially when there's so much talent in small parts.
Liv Taylor, for example, is credited only as "Girl in Bus Station," and she stands silently behind Penn for several minutes before attempting to utter her first line. However, before it gets past her lips, she's shut up by the bus station clerk, played by Roseanne's Laurie Metcalf, and Liv is left with her first non-speaking part--she doesn't return in later scenes.
Even Ennio Morricone, here scoring his 321st film, seems a bit out of place and winds up producing music that is, oddly, derivative of '60s electronic pop musician Perry Kingsley. It's obviously part of Stone's aesthetic to use the weird belching and popping sounds of Kingsley to make his film seem more experimental than it really is, just as his use of odd angles and distorting lenses only masks the fact that this is basically just a standard film noir outing.
Still, for the Tucson viewer, there's something charming about this film's vision of Arizona as a desolate hell-hole filled with dangerous semi-literates. Everyone in the film seems to want nothing more than to get out of our corner of the world, and many are willing to kill to do it. Characters talk constantly about the heat, the boredom, and the easy-going acceptance of incest here in the Copper State. They also talk with Southern accents, since no one in Hollywood seems to have figured out that we don't really sound like Flo from TV's Alice. While the Southwest has been portrayed as an unpleasant backwater in other recent films (e.g. Breakdown and Romeo is Bleeding), U-Turn makes it seem like the setting of No Exit. To bring it all home, the movie ends in a moment I'm sure we all can relate to, with the lone word "Arizona" being uttered as a hopeless cry of painful and resigned despair.
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