Oliver Stone's films are, as a rule, ridiculous. That is not necessarily a put-down – simply, in the first place, a statement about the level of melodramatic hysteria that invariably powers his work.
Every element of a Stone movie is intensified, overstated and overwrought. A person taking a shower, for instance – as Sean Penn does in a memorable scene of U Turn – does not merely wince at the recollection of some primal trauma; he must slide slowly down the tiles, sobbing and screaming.
The media hype for U Turn has assured us that this is an experiment for Stone, a way of recharging his batteries and getting back to his roots as an "independent" filmmaker – especially since it was shot for "a minimalist 20 million", which is certainly an intriguing new definition of minimalist art. So, with the help of young writer John Ridley, Stone drops his usual in-the-public-interest subject matter and heads for the steamy badlands of film noir.
U Turn is in fact much closer to zany neo-noir movies like Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot (1990) than such classics of the genre as Detour (1945), but an amalgam of the basic elements is evident.
Bobby (Penn) stops off in a small-town on the way to clear a shady debt in Las Vegas. Once his car disappears inside the grungy garage of Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton) and the various local freaks, cripples, psychos and nymphos come sniffing, we begin to suspect that our amoral anti-hero may never get out of this hell-hole alive.
U Turn is far from being Stone's worst movie (that dishonour goes to Nixon ). It is less ponderous and pretentious than his hyper-political films. Although a sense of humour has never come easily to this director, here he milks an escalating black comedy from Penn's increasingly desperate flailings and outbursts.
The casting, in the manner of Nicolas Roeg film, is more like an invitation list for a party than the recipe for a coherent ensemble – Jon Voight and Nick Nolte (hamming to the hilt) collide with comedians Laurie Metcalfe and Julie Hegarty, while glamorous teens Claire Danes, Joaquin Phoenix and Liv Tyler stroll on by in extravagant costumes.
In the final analysis, Stone is not a man for noir: he prefers to drench the action of U Turn in hard, blinding sunlight. This is of a piece with his overall aesthetic: say all, show all and repeat ad nauseam. If someone utters the word "kiss", Stone cuts to a hallucinatory insert of two people kissing; if they are facing death, that is the cue for a blistering, ear-splitting montage of crucifixes, circling vultures, grinning skulls and American Indian incantations.
And yet, despite all this nonsense – partly because of it – I enjoyed this film. In the central push-and-pull between Bobby and Grace (Jennifer Lopez) – the story's obligatory, sultry, whorish femme fatale – Stone finds a dramatic paradox that really inspires him. In a world where everything is so garishly on the surface, nobody can ever be truly trusted, deep down.
It's a revved-up variation on the theme that Bill Bennett explored in his neo-noir Kiss or Kill (1997). Will the barbaric, grotesque, driven denizens of U Turn ever get in touch with their collective soul – or do they even have any individual souls to begin with?
© Adrian Martin February 1998