The small towns of the United States Of America have long been ripe pickings as hotbeds of weirdness in fiction. In the cinematic medium, this has taken the form of black comedies such as The Burbs, where the Klopek family were used to satirise the perceived eccentricities and pathologies of those living in suburbia, and Killer Joe, William Friedkin’s underrated slice of Southern-fried brilliance that darkly poked fun at rural Texan etiquette, life in trailer parks and sexual aberration. It also takes some remarkably unfunny and disturbing shapes, as in David Lynch’s 1986 magnum opus Blue Velvet or the misogynistic dystopia of The Stepford Wives. In any case, these microcosms prove a deep well of inspirations for artists who imagine quaint and humdrum surfaces as veneers for insidious conspiracies or cooperative maladaptive behaviours. In Oliver Stone’s wonderful and neglected little neo-noir U Turn, Sean Penn plays an aimless loser who ends up running out of gas in a town where the residents take fucked-upness to another level, and must rely on his guile and his fists if he ever hopes to leave in one piece.
Penn stars as Bobby Cooper, a lone drifter at a pointedly low ebb in his life. He owes a painfully large sum of money (that he doesn’t have) to a brutal Russian mobster who has recently severed two of Bobby’s fingers with secateurs. Any past acquaintances and even family members would sooner see Bobby dead than help him out in any way, and now his battered Ford Mustang has broken down while lamming it from the bad guys in Nevada. Stranded in the town of Superior, Arizona, Bobby manages to locate a dingy mechanic shop operated by the weird, gormless, gut-flaunting redneck Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), the first stop in a colourful gallery of batshit crazy residents who will drive Bobby insane if they don’t end up killing him first.
With a fabulous cast that includes, alongside Thornton, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Powers Boothe, Jon Voight, Claire Danes and Jennifer Lopez, the inhabitants of Superior are all oddballs in one way or another, from the hilariously eccentric to the disturbingly warped. He eventually meets Grace McKenna (Lopez), a mysterious and oversexed femme fatale who wastes no time inviting Bobby into her bed. Grace’s husband is Jake McKenna (Nolte), a towering, short-fused man well known in the local area, and after some jealousy-fuelled violence, he does a 180 and becomes friendly toward Bobby (in his own aggressive, creepy way). Why the sudden change in demeanour? Well, Grace pisses him off, and he wants her dead (counselling is highly overrated), figuring that a shady out-of-towner like Bobby possesses the perfect combo of zero scruples and a disinclination to hang around. Being an opportunistic bastard typical of noir adventures, Bobby twists Jake’s arm into paying more than his original offer for the hit, all the while wrestling with his ambivalence about paying off his Russian creditors or just saying ‘Fuck it’ and disappearing with his new riches.
Proceedings begin to get just a little bit complicated when Grace offers to match Jake’s sum, asking Bobby to rid her of her violent and deranged spouse so that the two can drive off into the sunset and partake in all the travelling and shagging one could possibly fit into a lifetime. The brain in his head and the brain in his pants both congruent with this being the best option, Bobby plans to turn the tables on Jake while keeping up the act with him, juggling this with desperately trying to get his car back from the freakish Darrell, having several close calls with hot-tempered local bully Toby N Tucker (Phoenix) and his mind-numbingly stupid girlfriend Jenny (Danes), and engaging in philosophical discussions with a blind Native American transient (Voight). Keeping a watchful eye on Bobby and his endeavours is the enigmatic and suspicious local sheriff Virgil Potter (Boothe), an authoritative yet traditionally welcoming Southern fellow with a few skeletons in his own closet. Will Bobby end up winning via his trickery, or is he merely a condescending scumbag who drastically underestimates, or maybe doesn’t even entertain, the notion of these hicks catching onto his actions and giving him a punishment he’ll never forget?
You know you’re in for a wild ride when a degenerate gambler who is allegiant to no-one is the most likeable and virtuous human being in a milieu. The people living in Superior have been engaging in killing, abuse and deception (not to mention a variety of seriously messed up sexual taboos) a long time before Bobby showed up, and the longer he stays around to be privy to more dark and disgusting surprises, the more his anticipation to leave becomes a desperate, nauseous sense of panic, his memories of cities and towns on the map (or normal civilisation, as Bobby renders it) becoming like a fever dream. It’s an extraordinarily twisted tale, but is elevated by superb moments of dry levity, Thornton’s squinting, goofy pervert Darrell raising a chuckle as much as Penn’s passive-aggressive and patronising dismissals of Phoenix’s moronic and unstable thug. The humour is wonderful and subtle, but one thing is certain, and it’s that the behaviour at play in this town makes the events of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice seem like gossip-tinged schoolyard melodrama by comparison.
Opening to puzzlingly mixed reviews upon its release, I think U Turn provides another example of concerted critical misfire. Oliver Stone’s direction and Robert Richardon’s cinematography bring the heat, threat and isolation of the Arizona landscape to life so vibrantly, and Penn has never played the straight role better. His quietly simmering yet intelligent everyman catches the locals off guard with witty barbs and sudden violence, making the picture a perfect balance of black comedy and troubling thriller. Opening and closing with the wonderful ‘It’s A Good Day’ by Peggy Lee, U Turn is what would happen if James M. Cain and Lynch/Jodorowsky had a baby, a gritty, brutal, funny and seriously weird slice of Americana. It is veritably worthy of your time.