The political climate is ripe for a rousing melodrama about union rights, with the current president of the United States having convinced a significant portion of dwindling unions to embrace him despite his obligatorily conservative hostility toward stable wages and basic human rights. With this context in mind, the timing of James Franco’s In Dubious Battle appears to be more than fortuitous. An adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel of the same name, the film contributes to Franco’s ongoing project of tackling seemingly every author ever taught in an AP literature class, while reminding contemporary audiences of where the true battle resides in an era hopelessly defined by twisted notions of the right, left, and whatever Donald J. Trump’s attempting to pass himself off as at any given moment.
In Dubious Battle is set in California at the height of the Great Depression, when the desperation of migrant workers was exploited by wealthy land owners, who lured people across the country with promises of certain wages only to deliver less when workers arrived at a given property and were too broke to leave or protest. Franco isn’t subtle about the similarities between this form of indentured servitude and present-day union-squashing and deregulation, which empower corporations to pay less by keeping workers at each other’s throats, distracting them with racism and petty political fighting. In the 1930s, land owners would similarly spread rumors among the proletariat, talking of the presence of communists, “reds,” or “radicals” (today, the magic word is “terrorists”), which would keep them scared and separate, perhaps unwilling to ponder what these words actually mean.
Bluntness isn’t the problem with In Dubious Battle, as we live in times that call for gestures of broad rebellion. The problem is that Franco is a filmmaker with hints of promise who has little idea how to tell a story. As an actor, Franco has matured over the years into a brilliantly sly and poignant comic artist, a quicksilver magician of emotional ebb and flow. As a director, he’s clunky and uncertain, unable to even direct himself. Some of Franco’s past projects have almost gotten by on sheer audacity, such as his barely watchable yet unforgettable Child of God. But Franco is working in a staid, square genre with In Dubious Battle, mounting a film about a rebellion for civil liberties that requires a talent for smooth craftsmanship, particularly pacing that gradually builds to an inspiring fire-and-brimstone climax.
Franco has a distinctive way of filming period pieces, his roving camera suggesting contemporary home movies made of people dressing up in the garb of other eras. There’s a distinctively modern, alienating tremulousness in Franco’s films, a sketchiness that keeps them rooted in the present—a compelling quality that served Child of God but comes to nothing here. In Dubious Battle is mostly comprised of long scenes of clichéd migrant workers uttering earnest exposition as a stock bad guy, played by Robert Duvall, starves, beats, and murders them over the course of their strike.
The dialogue and characterizations are often so poor and obvious that one may wonder if Franco is attempting to land a postmodern punchline. Franco’s character, Mac, a drifter who organizes worker strikes (the sort of practice that would enable the beginning of unions), over-emphatically exclaims to a cohort: “You wanted in? This is the job! This is the job!” Later, Mac actually says: “If you worked half as hard at your job as stabbing your friends in the back, we wouldn’t be in this mess!” Franco is striving for a tone of impassioned self-righteousness but frequently settles for affected goofiness.
Bits of editorializing dialogue do suggest the resonant film that might’ve been. References to the worker’s strike as “playing politics” explicitly parallel today’s conservative propaganda, which seeks to make workers feel childish or un-masculine for campaigning for quality of life. “Playing politics” is reminiscent of vindictive equations of a desire for proper pay and affordable health care to a longing for “free stuff,” or to labeling protestors as “snowflakes.” When a supporting character says he’s tired of “playing politics” in this film, he’s speaking from a place of self-disgust, as he defines himself, like many people, through their ability to work no matter how unfair the circumstance.
Unfair conditions intensify a certain pride of self in the oppressed, affirming one’s ability to “take it,” to suck it up and weather pain. This is a poignant yet idiotic kind of pride—a pride of diminishment that nevertheless explains why people keep obstinately voting against their best interests. In fleeting moments, Franco captures this pulse of self-loathing, which is what liberals need to be able to understand and to speak to if they hope to ever regain relevancy in this world. If Franco had harnessed this emotion more fully throughout In Dubious Battle, he might have made a profound film.