In U Turn, director Oliver Stone turns a simple expository opening-credits sequence of a man driving through the desert into a symphony of expressionist be-bop dread. The camera seems to be everywhere at once. Initially, it assumes a god’s-eye perspective, allowing one to feel the pitiless, titled, jagged vastness of the landscape. Sometimes the camera is close in on Bobby (Sean Penn) as he drives his cherry-red Ford Mustang through Arizona toward California to pay off a gangster’s debt, occasionally regarding him from the vantage point of the car’s floor so that we can see that malevolently blue sky hanging over his head, somewhat fishbowl-shaped, resembling an awakening entity. Other times, the camera fetishizes the keys dangling from the car’s ignition, or the foreshadowing buzzards on the cracked asphalt road, or the old-school push-button radio that Bobby continually switches, so that Stone can intensify this encompassing stylistic overload with quick snatches of ironically placed iconic music. Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day” kicks things off (you can bet that song proves to be inappropriate), and as the sequence grows more fevered, it climaxes with a sampling of a track from Charles Mingus’s The Clown. The cuts are pointedly emphasized (fostering your awareness of the shifting angles), propulsive, and impossible to predict, suggesting an opening portal into someone’s soul, or merely the sensual pleasure to be had from life in lurid extremis. Credits animatedly scratch and fold in on themselves (like a “U”), and colors change in front of your eyes, suggesting multiple dimensions at war with one another for control of Bobby’s fate.
In other words, U Turn is another of the hallucinatory freak shows that Stone produced in the 1990s. There were suggestions of this blossoming aesthetic in Born on the Fourth of July that further crystallized in The Doors, but this particular incarnation of Stone’s career truly began with JFK, which, contrary to people’s literal-minded squabbles with the “truth” of its assertions, is concerned with the nature of memory, and how people process stimuli that’s already been preprocessed by the media. This exploration of the fusion of various manipulations of storytelling with memory, which is further infected by our individual demons, reached its height with Natural Born Killers, a brilliant dramatization of the uneasy meeting point between the fading myths of the counterculture and the disenfranchised MTV-pandered affectations of Generation X. Appropriately, then, that film’s mix of film stocks with animation and floating camera pirouettes suggests a long debauched night of flipping back and forth between Easy Rider and Beavis and Butthead and simultaneously blasting Patti Smith and Nirvana while drunk and higher than hell on coke and acid. At its best, Natural Born Killers suggests the emergence of a new kind of pop cinema that might truly accommodate stream of consciousness. In U Turn, Stone re-appropriates this aesthetic mostly for the sake of its own inherent sensory thrill (which is considerable), for kicks that are mostly detached from his reputation as a flower-child provocateur.
There’s nothing wrong with directors luxuriating firstly and mostly in their formal mastery; great artists, unburdened by pretensions of aspiring toward higher “meaning,” often reach the creative zenith of their careers that way. But there’s a reason that Stone eventually abandoned this style until resurrecting a nostalgic, comparatively hinged version of it with Savages years later. As with the stimulation of the drugs that almost certainly inspired this aesthetic, there’s a fine line between exhilaration and hangover. Stone has never been able to sustain this level of invention for an entire film, not even in Natural Born Killers, which becomes an ordeal in its second half. And, in fairness, it might not be possible to keep such a dense, restless, ever-tonally-mutating speed-freak tempo up for the length of a conventional film’s running time anyway. U Turn’s opening credit sequence is as stunning as anything in Stone’s oeuvre, but it’s so overpowering there’s really nowhere to go from there.
Remarkably, the director keeps the film’s engine running for about another hour anyway, seemingly by force of will. U Turn is a ruthless dark comedy, a blend of Detour and After Hours that follows a noir schmuck who makes the mistake of believing himself to be smarter than the few citizens of an Arizona ghost town (culturally stuck somewhere in the 1950s), who waste no time in destroying him. Stone, Penn, and the remainder of the high-profile cast, which includes Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, and Billy Bob Thornton, are not usually known for their senses of humor, but they’re canny enough to render the film’s comic tone as a knowing gloss on their relentlessly heavy sensibilities. The stifling monotony of the covetously macho atmosphere is the center of most of the gags.
Stone springs a number of gorgeous, diamond-hard set pieces, particularly a conversation inside of a car between Bobby and Nolte’s big-daddy character that beautifully escalates through Stone’s then-characteristic use of quick cuts, which evolve into an extreme and wobbly slideshow procession of close-ups that are interspersed with shards of visual incident that stand for the id of the character in question. But fatigue eventually sets in, for Stone as well as the audience, and the film collapses into a redundant sonata of attractive carnage. Yet, it’s a mistake to chastise Stone for this excessiveness, because it’s this creatively fallow land that yields the highs of the most startling sequences of the director’s career, both here and in other films of this period. U Turn might only be half a movie, but that half is fuller than many whole films.
The lights and darks in this image are big and bold, particularly the former for the use of reverse stock. Grain is occasionally heavy, but that’s attractive and appropriate to the source material. Colors really pop, most obviously the red of that cherry Mustang, and textures are densely detailed (most discernably in close-ups of skin and fur). The sound mix is similarly rich and immersive, offering a well-balanced sonic tapestry that deftly incorporates Ennio Morricone’s saber-rattling score with the great variety of small effects (crunching gravel, hissing steam, slamming doors, broken windows) that contribute to the fastidiously achieved impression of escalating chaos. A superb transfer, and one of Twilight Time’s best.
The primary attraction of this supplemental package is Oliver Stone’s audio commentary. The director has a tendency to narrate the events on the screen as they transpire, but this is quickly revealed to be a launching pad for his observations on the film’s production history as well as, more interestingly, on its incredible aesthetic. Stone largely resists explaining his formal approach; instead, he revels in its vivacity, inadvertently offering a portrait of the sort of experimental fly-by-night fetishist that’s probably required to produce such art to begin with. Occasionally, he grows defensive and over-compensatory (U Turn was poorly received and made little money), attempting to justify his movie as another of his explorations of the dark heart of America’s legacy, but this sort of thing is half-hearted, reductive, and unnecessary. An interesting traditional tidbit: Bill Paxton nearly played Bobby, and his distinctive sense of humanity might’ve acted as a valuable counterpoint to the film’s eventually numbing stylization. The second audio commentary, with production executive Mike Medavoy and film historian Nick Redman, is a dry one, but it provides unusual perspective on the often demonized business end of cinema. Rounding out the package is an isolated score track, an intro with Stone, the theatrical trailer, and an essay by critic Julie Kirgo.
Oliver Stone’s most underrated movie is a dark comic fantasy of sin and futility as well as one of the craziest and most beautiful of all noirs. It receives an appropriately luscious transfer that should sate cult members in the know.