Label: Twilight Time
Released: March 10, 2015
Genre: Film Noir / Black Comedy / Suspense
Synopsis: A schnook owing money to Russian gangsters is stranded in a desert town, and the only surefire way of escaping to California is murdering a hot dame.
Special Features: Audio Commentary #1: director Oliver Stone / Audio Commentary #2: producer Mike Medavoy with producer & film historian Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Oliver Stone Intro (2:45) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively at Screen Archives Entertainment.
A gamble for Mike Medavoy’s fledgling Phoenix Films and ultimately a box office and critical dud upon its theatrical release, U-Turn’s evolved into an undiscovered classic of modern noir if not a cult film, and one of Oliver Stone’s best films of the 1990s where every instinct almost yields a perfect result – almost, because like Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and The Doors (1991), there has to be flying / watchful birds, shamans, dream interpretation, and chunks of sage advice from Native Americans that often act as portents to the hero / anti-hero’s poor judgment calls.
U-Turn gets better with repeated viewings because it’s packed with so much specially brewed oddness, and Stone doesn’t shy away from a nihilistic finale that’s appropriate to modern noir thrillers, jet black comedies, and desert thrillers where urban characters trapped in an armpit of dirty humanity are surrounded by a visually sumptuous wasteland.
The desert is far more beautiful and fair-minded in terms of who (or what) survives, thrives, and dies than the weirdo inhabitants that make up the town of Superior where small-time crook Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) lands after his classic Ford Mustang blows a hose and needs a quick repair.
Naturally the repair takes forever, costs more upon each check-in, and delays Cooper’s stay, and while awaiting the car’s readiness he’s attracted to the teasing wife (Jennifer Lopez) of the town’s wealthy realtor (Nick Nolte, sporting buck teeth), falls under the watch of the town’s drinking-while-policing Sheriff Potter (always sneering Powers Booth), and bumps into all kinds of weird characters extrapolated from the mind of novelist / screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave, Three Kings) and director Stone.
Everyone in town is kind of nuts, and hotshot Cooper soon realizes he’s not going to get out of Superior unless he agrees to kill the girl for a piece of the insurance money to pay off the escalating car repairs and escape to California before a hitman sent by a Russian heavy (The Saint‘s Valeriy Nikolaev) arrives to collect a hefty debt he can’t pay. U-Turn is sometimes brutal, but the violence is also quite absurd, and it’s a film that plays up bad karmic elements to create a refreshing black comedy-modern noir hybrid.
Dark pasts, betrayal, forbidden love (one that strikingly echoes Robert Towne’s Chinatown), revenge and nihilism are part of the film’s package, but there’s also crazy characters enlivened by several scene-stealing actors. Billy Bob Thornton is hysterical as the not-quite dumb repairman with rotting teeth (one of several characters that echo David Lynch, if not Wild at Heart); Jon Voigt is a Native American who might be blind, but extols portentous wisdom to doomed Cooper during the film’s lulls; and Joaquin Phoenix steals the film outright as Toby N. Tucker, a punchy bonehead with “TNT” cut into the back of his hair.
Cooper’s encounters with TNT and jail-bait girlfriend Jenny (ever-skipping Claire Danes) are worth the price of admission, and there’s some unexpected irony in TNT’s ‘theme song’ being Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” given Phoenix would play Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line.
Other small roles are filled by a wealth of character actors (Bo Hopkins, Julie Hagerty, Laurie Metcalf), plus a blink-and-she’s-gone moment with Liv Tyler.
The 1990s had an interesting share of modern noir thrillers set in the desert, and alongside U-Turn there was the equally underrated Delusion (1991), The Hot Spot (1990), and Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) – each featuring sultry women, possessive / sleazy men, heroes with dark or morally dirty pasts, and the desert as both a backdrop and character.
The initial failure of Stone’s film – a ‘small’ movie he wanted to make after the more complex Nixon (1995) – makes it a curio in his canon, but it’s also an example of where his creative skills lay after having played with various film stocks and sophisticated editing in JFK (1991), used flash cuts and satirical / baroque montages in Natural Born Killers and later Any Given Sunday (1999), and pushed the physical and aesthetic limits of film stock, choosing to (daringly) shoot U-Turn on 35mm reversal film to achieve hypnotic blacks, reds, and blues.
It’s a is a gorgeous film, from its production design, weathered locations, costumes, and sound design, and Ennio Morricone’s peculiar score, which plays up the film’s drama, seething passion, sleaze, and ‘cartoon’ rhythmic mechanics of certain characters, and Cooper’s increasingly pathetic circumstances.
In spite of its ever-increasing cult status – if not for the director, than the cast – U-Turn never received a special edition on home video, and Twilight Time’s limited Blu-ray is a marvelous package that offers as much as possible to create a definitive SE. Stone’s newly recorded commentary re-emphasizes the director’s view of U-Turn being his darkest work and a troublesome film to market, and almost every aspect of its production, release, and legacy are covered, whereas producer Nick Redman managed to snag producer Mike Medavoy, a legendary agent and later studio executive at Tri-Star and Orion, for a career discussion with periodic nods to the film.
Both tracks are fact-filled, but not unlike Stone’s Heaven & Earth commentary, everything’s been covered after 40 mins., and the remaining ruminations consists of story and character observations, and a few widening gaps before Stone saves some piquant comments for the End Credit roll. He’s quite candid about the disintegrating creative relationship with cinematographer Robert Richardson, and although this proved to be their final cinematic pairing, it’s a stunning work of beauty.
Medavoy’s commentary is about an hour long and the final section tends to drag a bit, although those wanting more details on his extensive life in film production can reference his 2003 autobiography, You’re Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot. Redman also refers to Penn being involved with recording a separate audio commentary for the Blu-ray, but that effort failed to materialize in the final master (which is a shame, but one can presume Penn would’ve been a man of sparse words, and may have preferred scene-specific commentary or a short interview featurette at the most).
Morricone’s score is also isolated in stereo on a separate track, and Stone also provides a short intro (although fair warning: it includes some spoiler material).
With a firm grasp of kinetic, subtext-heavy editing and clever sound design, Stone would parlay his technical skill set to what’s arguably his last great fiction film, the 2.5 hour, venal yellfest Any Given Sunday. Cinematographer Richardson would switch gears and become a regular collaborator with respective filmmakers Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2).
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review