After desecrating middlebrow history with a ferocious blast of pure cinematic invention with JFK and excoriating damn near every human in existence with the polyvalent Natural Born Killers, easily among the most confrontational films in modern history, the slithering small-town noir U Turn feels like Oliver Stone in a downward spiral of purposeless. Rather than attacking anyone – or arguing for much of anything at all – U Turn is nominally a film without an agenda, an existential void with Sean Penn rushing all around circling for a purpose and excavating only one more beat-down in a small-town location that he never considers as more than an object.
Yet this very purposeless – this errant, aimless descent into Stone’s Weird West and his twitchy style ostensibly sans meaning – is also Stone’s disturbing expression of a world where the protagonist is no longer trying to invade and conquer the monstrous hybridism and entropy of society but is instead actively doing everything in his path to avoid it, only for it to invade him. “Conflict”, a vertical progression of scenes typically exploring two parties in fragmented dissension, is unfurled into full-on conflagration where the meaning, and sometimes even the participants, in the fight aren’t even definable any more. Erecting a wall against the dying of the light is now figuring out how to use the darkness to your advantage.
U Turn is obviously reminiscent of the negligently disavowed Red Rock West by John Dahl from five years beforehand, but the style and the subversion are inverted and upended. Dahl’s slightly unhinged Lynchian melodrama, a night-encrusted somnambulant of a film, was a melancholic, messianic vision of the wayward American spirit muffled by its own foolhardy ambition but just as capable of overcoming that waywardness by using it to its advantage and setting its gee-whiz volition to discovering a path out. Stone’s film is a sun-scorched, pavement-smacked exercise in visual tyranny in an incongruous world where the platonic dementia of small town America is actually a weapon wielded against the presumptuous liberal American egotist who fancies himself to be as unsupervised and free as the director’s gloriously cracked-open film is. In Dahl’s film, the drifter – like decades of Western heroes – didn’t conquer but at least carved out an opportunity; in Stone’s film, opportunity is an Ouroboros that eats itself from the other end.
The structureless narrative emphasizes oddball small-town types ricocheting Penn around and constant car ride pas de deux’s between Penn and different characters, each a new slab of meat throwing Penn on the barbeque, with every scene encircling a kind of surrealistic hopelessness. The town eventually feels less like a contiguous space and more like a centripetal piston with vultures from all ends smashing into Penn, whose supposed volition is eventually exorcised by a film that turns him into a passive punching bag. Stone’s film visualizes both the fears of the well-to-do American middle-class and metastasizes those fears into a weapon to decapitate the lone wanderer image so central to the Western iconography of American lore. In Stone’s tall tale, the interloper on the town doesn’t save the day, or execute it; he just drunkenly stumbles by.
Stone’s muck-raking propagandist has been punctured into a cynical gargoyle, a post-America apocalypse ghoul-school that plays out as a gonzo pit-stop in post-Texas Chainsaw fears and bedeviled caricatures. A grizzled Nick Nolte (but I said Nick Nolte, so the adjective was already assumed) and his wife Jennifer Lopez (there’s an absurdity for you) each want Penn to kill the other, but unlike in Dahl’s more cohesive, less astringent film, the shifts and switch-backs aren’t so much “twists” as impossibilities that unspool until the narrative is no longer meaningful as anything more than a long shaggy-dog joke. The title of the film is a misnomer; we aren’t watching turns so much as clots, severances, and tangles that render following the path of the film, or being excited by the thirsty twists of any film noir, essentially a fool’s errand. The noir, the most cynical of genres, becomes the butt-end of Stone’s cynical joke wherein twists just happen because they can, and caring or presumptuously investigating their truth content is just a way to kill yourself.
Billy Bob Thornton is on hand as a mechanic whose competence stabs Penn’s superiority in the neck. Joaquin Phoenix is a town bully who gallantly arrives just to screw with Penn, with Stone delighting in the low-key absurdity of not even trying to develop much rational causation for his attacks or following effects with antecedent causes. Jon Voight, stealing his delectably venomous false-Portuguese accent from the same year’s Anaconda, plays a blind Indian that is either Stone’s parody of the wise Native American or his jubilant extension of the type into the realm of hyperbolic insanity.
Plus, Stone’s cinematic verbosity is corroborated by Robert Richardson’s amorously sticky cinematography, vacillating between sun-scorched grotto and steamy nighttime melodrama, as well as Hank Corwin’s nervous, free-associative editing that recalls the heyday of Nicolas Roeg’s experiments in editing as the primary girder that can structure or corrode a film on the flip of a dime. The hidden weapon of the film though might be Ennio Morricone’s perceptive, percussive toot-whistle-plunk-and-boom score that cunningly ribs his old Western scores and their morbid, playful introduction of alternative instrumentation into orchestral motifs as a way of entangling the classically baroque Old School Western with the hoarse, rough-and-tumble razzamatazz of the jazzy new-school ‘60s kind. As an aural encapsulation of a discombobulated variation on a classical narrative, it’s dynamite.
The screenplay by Stone and John Ridley almost isn’t one in this drug-fueled fantasia that is more cinematically literate and more visually corrosive than the much more famous cult film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from the following year, largely because U Turn colonizes our minds with its own rules rather than ingratiatingly playing up what it thinks we want to see out of a fever-dream. In other terms, Fear and Loathing wants you to know it is a fever dream, while U Turn has the volatile, combustible assurance to introduce itself as a hand-shaking neo-noir friend you can relate to in the even-then-hoary tradition of the mid to late ‘90s, only to stab itself and us in the back with tangential, digressive excursions into whatever crosses its mind.
Until, of course, the improvisational nature of the excursions becomes the embodiment of a film, and a human conscious, searching for meaning and a semblance of self to no avail. On the eve of turning respectable for most of the ‘00s, nearly destroying his critical clout in the process, U Turn is not merely a side-swerve into one last “pure” lurid exercise – a palate cleanser for Stone – but an exploration of counterfeit Western roles that are applied as easily as they are thrown away when they become useless. In this fool’s gold world, Stone’s moral conscious is divined in a late-film verbal explosion on Penn’s part: “Is everybody fucking everybody in this goddamn town?” For Stone, the statement is also a state of the union address about the world itself.