It’s a good time to be an Oliver Stone fan. Or at the very least it’s a good time to be thinking about Oliver Stone. His latest film Snowden has just hit cinemas but more interestingly, Matt Zoller Seitz recently published The Oliver Stone Experience; a massive coffee-table book anchored by a career-spanning interview with Stone himself that also features endless paraphernalia from his movies as well as critical essays and various supporting materials. It’s a gorgeous tome that approaches Stone’s body of work with a seriousness and respect that his detractors – of which there are many – might find unnecessary and ridiculous. As someone who has a bit of a “take him or leave him” attitude to Stone, the book inspired me to look at the man’s filmography again and finally fill in a few blank spots. As expected, the journey has been rocky. Occasionally thrilling, often frustrating, always long; watching an Oliver Stone movie – from any era of his career – is full of highs and lows but, to re-iterate the title of Seitz’ book, at least it’s an experience.
In the last few weeks I’ve watched, for the first time: Salvador, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, U Turn and Nixon. I’m not going to talk about the best (Nixon). I’m not going to talk about the worst (Talk Radio, probably). As I sit pretty comfortably in the middle of the Oliver Stone is great/Oliver Stone sucks balls debate, I’m going full middle ground. So lets talk about U Turn.
After completing the gargantuan Nixon, Stone turned his attention to a smaller, genre based canvas much like he did with Natural Born Killers following his JFK/Heaven & Earth double whammy, and made a whacked out, fish-out-of-water story unfolding under the scorching Arizona sun. Sean Penn plays a drifter called Bobby whose car breaks down and leaves him stranded in the town of Superior which turns out to be the kind of nightmarish hellhole-as metaphorical purgatory most criminals hope to never step foot in. Left to the mercy of the town’s freakish locals, Bobby is forced to deal with an oafish mechanic (an almost unrecognisable Billy Bob Thornton, 50 pounds overweight), a corrupt Sheriff (Powers Boothe), a blind Indian (Jon Voight, neither blind nor Indian) and most substantially: a sultry temptress, Grace (Jennifer Lopez) and her jealous, oppressive husband Jake (Nick Nolte). There’s a sense that any of these characters could put a bullet in Bobby’s head if the right excuse came along and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a bunch of mobsters after him for an unpaid debt and they’ve already chopped off three of his fingers. If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, it’s because there is.
Utilising the same maximalist, multi-format visual style that defined most of Stone’s 90s work, U Turn almost falls afoul of the same pitfalls that hampered his subsequent films such as Any Given Sunday and Savages as well as earlier works like JFK depending who you’re talking to. Every line of dialogue seems to dictate a cut. The visual language is a helter skelter of perspectives, close-ups and montage. It’s ridiculously busy for such a stripped back story but somehow the overkill feels right here. It’s not so much a fish out of water story as it is a fish out of water decomposing in the desert story. The sun-scorched, grainy photography, alternating between 16mm and 35mm and mixing traditional with wide-angle lenses, is in love with all the nasty details. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, here completing the last in an eleven-film run with Stone, really pushes his lens into the most surreal corners. If somebody sweats, an individual sweat bead is granted a close-up, if somebody has a drink we’re sure to see the string of saliva between the bottle and their lips. Roadkill and naked bodies are presented with the same indulgence. From bodily fluids to dusty concrete, you can really feel all the textures. Part of the fun of U Turn is being immersed in such a heightened, extreme aesthetic. There’s even a bugged out Ennio Morricone score thrown in for good measure. Is this Stone’s take on the Leone western? It’s more like a cartoon, further emphasized by the director’s penchant for goofy sound design stings and the nutty performances.
It’s saying something when Sean Penn, notorious for his grandiose characters, plays the straight man in your movie. He navigates the rest of the cast with a constant perplexed look on behalf of the audience. By the time Joaquin Phoenix shows up as a confrontational rockabilly called Toby N. Tucker, or TNT as the shaved initials in the back of his head will clarify, Penn’s only reaction is to surrender to the absurdity with a blink. Ofcourse his nickname is TNT. Everyone seems to be having a blast playing ugly and dastardly, their cackling faces often distorted by Richardson’s lens. Jennifer Lopez, as the sole female in the core cast, is there to look sexy and seductive in a floaty orange dress but even she emerges as a cunning villainess. It’d be easy to question Stone’s gender politics (as many have with his previous work) but much like Jennifer Jason Leigh in last year’s The Hateful Eight, Lopez is only as sensationalised and contemptible as her male counterparts. I’m not sure how many of these performances I would consider “great” but all of them are extremely entertaining even if some are in bad taste. I mean, Jon Voight as a blind Indian doing the same accent he used in Anaconda the same year? That’s an instance of Stone’s judgement being way off but I can’t deny finding it somewhat hilarious and definitely memorable. It’d be easy to praise Billy Bob Thornton’s commitment to the project due to his weight gain too, but part of me suspects he just enjoyed getting a fat paycheck from over-eating for a few months. (Sidenote: remember all of those chameleon-like character parts Thornton indulged in during the 90s? It’s easy to forget his characters in Sling Blade, One False Move, A Simple Plan and Armageddon are all played by the same actor. Good work Billy Bob!)
As the film goes on it becomes increasingly ridiculous and overwrought. Murder plots unspool within murder plots and revelations of incest aren’t far behind. There’s a bag of money, last minute betrayals and outbursts of violence in both the noir and grindhouse traditions. By the end of U Turn, those left standing are hampered with broken bones, covered in scratches and bathed in sticky blood slowly turning to gloop under the burning sunlight. Stone’s sick and twisted sense of humour permeates throughout the entire story and his predatory direction tries its hardest to incriminate the audience in all the sleaze and scumbaggery. You feel like you’ve just been dragged through the seven circles of hell and all you can do is laugh like a psychopath. It isn’t as unruly or as experimental as something like Natural Born Killers – a film I originally thought this one preceded as it’s one of the few films more overblown than U Turn (also a better one on the whole) – but shares its sense of graphic frenzy. It’s one of the few times in his career where we can see Stone not working in an explicitly political mode and his primary goal seems to be to entertain and exhilarate the audience which he achieves to varying degrees of success. The hyperreal visuals and cutting will work depending on your tolerance – imagine the final cocaine-infused 20 minutes of Goodfellas stretched to two hours – but as a fan of bold strokes and violent aesthetics, I just about got on board with it. This style would reach breaking point in Stone’s truly irritating Any Given Sunday but anchored in this genre framework, the explosive close-ups and relentless cuts can be eye-poppingly expressionistic. Some of the individual shots are lurid and stunning in equal measure. It’s bonkers but I dig it.
After U Turn, everything seemed to go downhill for Stone. Critical support and audience opinion deteriorated to the point where it now takes a coffee table book to potentially begin a reappraisal of the man’s work. Digging into his filmography with a more open mind, I found myself appreciating all of Stone’s overindulgences and crazed obsessiveness. It’s with these eyes I first watched U Turn and, while certainly not an especially great film, it looks and feels exclusively like an Oliver Stone movie. And you know what? I enjoyed the experience.
Read the full article at Reloading the Canon