U Turn. 1997. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by John Ridley, from his book Stray Dogs.
Starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Powers Boothe, Laurie Metcalf & Liv Tyler. Phoenix Pictures/Illusion Entertainment Group/Clyde Is Hungry Films/Canal+ Droits Audiovisuels.
Rated R. 125 minutes.
Oliver Stone is an acquired taste. Always has been. I’m sure if I’d been a teenager when films like Platoon or later Natural Born Killers came out (almost made it for that second one), he would’ve been a filmmaker I’d flock to theatres for, over and over. He has a rebellious spirit. Perhaps why, when I was a teenager I eventually made my way into his filmography. In fact, going to film school when I did was partially inspired by Stone, whose movies and style I always found chaotic, vivid, and never less than incredibly interesting. So I devoured everything he ever made. Not to say each single movie is a masterpiece – no filmmaker is flawless – but he has an amazingly solid track record. His war-related pictures are rarely matched in intensity, and scope. Movies like Natural Born Killers and even The Doors are odd rides through madness, equally intense and every bit as intriguing as his political work.
U Turn falls into that second category – the weird and the wild. An adaptation of John Ridley’s novel Stray Dogs, this movie is quite different in story and plot than most of Stone’s previous films. Usually we see Stone take on, as I said, war or politics, often edging towards realism and many times based off actual true events. Yet this movie goes into completely fictional territory, though apparently the original book is loosely based on a real story about a drifter who wandered into a town and disappeared forever. Either way, Ridley’s story plays well with Stone and his style of filmmaking. Their forces combine into a fucked up movie that you won’t soon forget.
With Russian mafia on his tail, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is heading to Las Vegas. He needs to pay off a big debt, fast. Only trouble is, on the way over the highway Bobby encounters car trouble. This strands him out in a small town named Superior, Arizona. Even worse, the whole place is filled with quirky, and sometimes dangerous, characters with whom he has a varied number of encounters. Things start out weird enough, then slowly everything spirals into darkness. Coming across a beautiful young woman named Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), Bobby believes he’s hit the jackpot. But then her husband Jake (Nick Nolte) arrives, catching them almost in bed together. Afterwards, Jake finds Bobby on the road and offers him a ride; as well as offers him thousands and thousands of dollars to kill Grace.
The nail in the coffin comes when Bobby ends up between a couple robbers and a grocery store clerk. His bag full of money gets blown away in the resulting gunfight, which puts him at even worse odds than the beginning. Expecting the mafia to find him, Bobby tries his best to get out of Superior.
Except it isn’t ever that easy, is it? Not for a guy like Bobby.
I’ve always love Stone’s frenetic, quick cut, quick edit style. Here, though, it may be on its best form. Honestly. The way he gives us the scene, but then edits and cuts bits and pieces around it from the same dialogue, the same scene, this technique almost puts us right in the place of Bobby Cooper. He’s seeing these people, talking to them. Simultaneously, Stone cuts these different reactions, often manic-like actions and laughter, which sort of paints these people as two-faced, strange, weird; all of which they certainly are. Sort of makes this a very unsettling movie, in that way. Each character is like a different breed, one you can never for sure get hold of, and at the same time you almost really know these people, especially if you come from a smaller area like myself. These small town, almost hickish people are recognizable, albeit strange and oddly curious, too. Either way, the technique Stone uses draws us into the web of these characters in an impressive, low-key sense.
The soundtrack and score, as usual for Stone, are lots of fun. We’ve got everything on the soundtrack from Johnny Cash to Peggy Lee, Sammi Smith (singing a song by Kris Kristofferson), to Ween and Gloria Lynne. Can’t forget the weird score to match all the other weirdness, by none other than Ennio Morricone. To be totally honest, I’ve seen this film about 20 times, or more, and I never once realized it was Morricone who did the composing. He’s a true talent, a varied and eclectic musician if there ever were one in the film industry. His music is a perfect addition to this plethora of oddities. At times, it makes things feel like a funhouse, right out in the open Arizona sun. Others, there’s a charming noir feel to the strings in the background, plucking away, ratcheting up the suspense and the tension. Great use of score and soundtrack, which again I often come to expect from a guy like Stone. He usually collaborates well with other artists.
The acting is top notch. A dark and comic cast of characters comes to life here. Penn does a great down-and-out performance, Bobby Cooper on the edge of oblivion, already missing a couple fingers and hoping not to have to give up any more. Though I find Penn a bit nuts as a person, I dig his acting and he’s a favourite of mine. Then, Nolte and Boothe each add a sort of veteran feel to the cast, men who’ve been in all sorts of movies giving their best to these odd little small town folks; Nolte is vicious and conniving, while Boothe is tough and stand-offish. Even J-Lo gives us a decent effort. And Claire Danes is around for a little bit, playing a hilarious, cute character, which adds just another dash of flavour to the pot.
Above everyone else, I have to mention two special names for putting in incredible work, albeit in relatively small, not even supporting roles: Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Bob Thornton. First, Phoenix plays Toby N. Tucker – a.k.a TNT – and this is such a nice role, lots of quirk, plus there’s a simmering charisma to the character. Even if he is an asshole. Yet it’s Billy Bob who truly shines, packing on at least 20-30 pounds to play a mechanic named Darrell who may be a bit slow, but certainly ain’t stupid. He has a way of speaking, a way of moving. Really, for such a small character Thornton leaned in hard and brought this one off the page. Again, these are touches which add the right amount to an already interesting story.
I’ve always considered U Turn a 5-star slice of cinema. It’s sort of trashy, and at the same time there is a great neo-noir thriller with a peppering of black comedy thrown in at every corner. While many probably dismissed this movie upon release, and plenty have/still do after, every time I get the chance I’ll watch it. There’s a sexy dangerousness about so many parts in the film. At the same time, the odd nature of the town, the characters, everything comes across completely, madly, and chaos fills just about every last frame. There’s not a single scene I don’t love and every watch of U Turn unsettles, disturbs and enthralls me. Leaving it ’till now to watch? Do yourself a favour. Pop this on, have a fucking weird night.