Ulee's Gold

(Victor Nuñez, USA, 1997)


It was probably both a help and a burden for Ulee's Gold that it appeared in Australia in the wake of Sling Blade (1996). Like Billy Bob Thornton's film, this one is a character study, slowly paced and gradual in its shifts and revelations. It is, once again, a portrait of relatively ordinary people, in a semi-rural setting, beset by shocking crises. Writer-Director Victor Nuñez (Ruby in Paradise, 1993) gives a rare dignity to everyday actions: manual labour, family meals, walking and talking.

But Ulee's Gold lacks the dramatic punch of Sling Blade. This is doubtless a deliberate strategy on Nuñez's part: clearly abhorring sensationalism, he refuses every opportunity to give us a violent catharsis for the painful problems of his characters. Nonetheless, the story slides uneasily and half-heartedly into familiar, generic territory whenever two vile, small-time crooks, Eddie (Steven Flynn) and Ferris (Dewey Weber), enter the picture.

The story is essentially about Ulee (Peter Fonda), a proud and patient beekeeper who is reluctant to face a changing economic landscape. Ulee has raised his two grandchildren, Casey (Jessica Biel) and Penny (Vanessa Zima), because of the drug-related problems that have ruined the lives of his son Jimmy (Tom Wood) and daughter-in-law Helen (Christine Dunford). But when Ulee has to not only look after the bedraggled Helen but also protect her from Eddie and Ferris, complete catastrophe looms.

The most moving and successful part of this film is the evolution of Ulee's character. Like the elderly central figure of Claude Sautet's Nelly and Mr Arnaud (1995), Ulee finds, at an unexpectedly late moment in his life, that his routines and preconceptions have been suddenly smashed or put into question. A withdrawn man by nature or by habit, he must now learn to adapt and respond anew to the limitations and potentialities of those closest to him. Ulee at least has a feisty neighbour, Connie (Patricia Richardson), to keep him on his toes.

This role is a tremendous showcase for Fonda. He is an actor in the tradition of Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood: the muscles of his face do not move much, but his whole bearing, his gait and posture, the way he holds himself back and watches or propels himself into reluctant action, speak volumes. It is an extremely poignant performance.

Although Nuñez is a far more experienced filmmaker than Billy Bob Thornton, Ulee's Gold does not possess a fraction of Sling Blade's stylistic mastery. The shots, staging and editing rhythms are never more than perfunctory. Nuñez's penchant for the unglamorous and the quotidian unfortunately also leads him away from artistry and rigour. Which is a pity, because Ulee's Gold could have been sublime instead of just admirable.

© Adrian Martin September 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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