U-Turn – Hard Luck In Hell

Country: United States
Genre: Drama/Suspense/Comedy
Director: Oliver Stone
Year: 1997

Rating: ★★★★½


Director Oliver Stone previous two films before U-Turn were Nixon, and before that, Natural Born Killers. Stone, stung by the criticisms of JFK, went out of his way to document the accuracy of Nixon, as if it were a term paper instead of a movie. After all that hard work, he wanted to blow off steam, and U-Turn was the result.

U-Turn is Oliver Stone having fun. The shooting style is fast and loose, and has a great deal of energy, much like Salvador did a decade earlier. Stone indulged himself, playing around with filters, lenses and film stocks. Fortunately, the material in John Ridley’s screenplay, adapted from his novel, is ideal for such a treatment.

Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is a drifter with a gambling jones. To feed his habit, he goes wherever the money is. Among other jobs, he apparently worked as a tennis pro. That’s no longer a career option, since two of his fingers have been snipped off as punishment for non-payment of a debt to a loanshark. Bobby is driving to Vegas to pay off the loanshark when his radiator hose breaks outside of Superior, Arizona.

Bobby runs into a gallery of memorable grotesques, including shifty auto mechanic Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), tough-guy wannabe Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix), a blind Indian who dispenses philosophical bromides (Jon Voight), and a waitress named Flo (Julie Hagerty).

All Bobby wants to do is get his car fixed and split, until he runs into Grace McKenna (hot-as-a-pistol Jennifer Lopez). You can kind of understand why Bobby wants to get it on with her. J Lo is incredibly sexy in the role, but that isn’t all. As the film unspools, you start to understand that Grace isn’t entirely sane. J Lo communicates that in such a way that she’s both frightening and sexy at the same time. It’s a great performance. For his part, Sean Penn turns in a virtuoso comic performance, every bit as good as his iconic turns in Fast Time At Ridgemont High and Carlito’s Way.

But U-Turn is chock full of inspired performances. Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez fall within the realm of heightened naturalism, but most of the other actors are directed to play very broadly. Claire Danes is very funny as a chippy named Jenny, who goads her boyfriend Toby into picking fights with other men. Joaquin Phoenix is memorable as the wacked-out Toby. In different ways, Jon Voight and Billy Bob Thornton are amusingly repulsive in their roles.

Some viewers might object to the over the top performances of the peripheral characters, but they fit the story. John Ridley’s scenario is a sly take on the stranger stuck in a hostile town genre. Superior, Arizona seems to be constructed with the express purpose of torturing Bobby. The story is so extreme that approaching it in a realistic fashion would have been a mistake — only comic surrealism will do.

Director Oliver Stone supports that decision with all manner of visually destabilizing devices: slow motion, fast motion, lens flare, and inserts of images which have no literal relationship to the story but support the mood. Ennio Morricone’s score also is a major contributor to the effectiveness of U-Turn. Most of the time, the score is cracked and goofy, even venturing into Three Stooges territory once in a while, but Morricone also contributes Grace’s theme, one of the most haunting and beautiful in movies. It’s one of Morricone’s best scores, which is saying alot for this legendary film composer.

Really, for what it is, U-Turn is damned near perfect. The dialog by novelist/screenwriter John Ridley is razor sharp, the performances are nearly all excellent, and Oliver Stone displays a mastery of tone and pacing that’s rare for him.

There is only one stumbling block for lovers of trash cinema. Some might find U-Turn too arty. Stone spends a lot of time and effort on atmosphere. Scenes are not shot straightforwardly, but are presented in a fractured manner, in order to approximate the emotional state of the participants. Literalists will not be pleased by the disorienting effect of Stone’s narrative devices and the outre performances. But for lovers of cinema who appreciate comedy at its blackest, U-Turn is a one-of-a-kind jewel.

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