U Turn (1997)

A man owes money to a gangster. He is on his way to deliver the payment when his car breaks down. He finds himself on the outskirts of a town just off the highway, Superior. He meets a mechanic, Darrell (Billy Bob Thorton), who agrees to fix the car but says it might take some time. The man goes to town. A robbery. The money is lost. He barely has a penny to his name now. He can’t pay Darrell, who now holds his car for ransom. He has to figure out a way to get enough money to get out of this town, and then reacquire the $13,000 he owed this gangster.

The man’s name is Bobby (Sean Penn), and this is the setup of U Turn. There are more characters, too, some of whom potentially provide a solution. He flirts with a woman named Grace (Jennifer Lopez), not realizing she’s married to Jake (Nick Nolte). Jake catches them at his house. He punches Bobby and then offers him a ride back into the center of town. We’re in Arizona, so the heat can kill. Jake offers Bobby a solution: He’ll pay the new guy in town a few thousand to kill his wife. He’s sick of the games she plays with him.

It’s this subplot that eventually becomes a priority. There are yet many other characters to meet. A blind man played by an unrecognizable Jon Voight offers friendly advice. An odd woman, Jenny (Claire Danes) clings to Bobby at first sight, making her tough-guy boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix) into an enemy. The town’s Sheriff (Powers Boothe) always seems to be watching. There’s no way Bobby could get away with murder, could he?

There are twists. Grace has a tragic back story. She knows of a safe where her husband keeps hundreds of thousands of dollars. She purposes Bobby kill him and they can run off together. The film goes back and forth for a while, toying with what Bobby will do, and what we think or hope should happen. U Turn is repetitive in structure. It seems to be replaying the same thing over and over with only minor details swapped. Bobby has hallucinations which allow for Natural Born Killers-style scenes of excess.

I take a lot of time describing what happens because this is a difficult film to gauge and an even tougher one to truly figure out. I enjoyed watching it but this is one of those times where discerning exactly why I felt any affection for it proves nearly impossible. None of the characters are good people — or even particularly deep or interesting — the story meanders and repeats, the overarching story is less complicated than the film makes it out to be … and yet it works.

The story is a mess but it is compelling. You do want to see what, eventually, Bobby will do. Perhaps that’s the completionist side of me; I always want to finish something I start. And since it’s not a painful watch, seeing it through to the end isn’t a problem. Bobby comes across as someone trying too hard to be cool — either for his sake, the sake of the townspeople, or for the audience — but that routine does make you wonder exactly what led him to this point. Why did he owe $13,000? Other characters raise questions that aren’t answered; you have to make up your own mind.

Part of the reason it’s hard to find compelling reasons to recommend U Turn is that it lulls you into a trance while watching it. It’s very hypnotic. Perhaps it’s because of the heat. The best movies make you feel immersed in the location in which the film is set. U Turn is set in Arizona, where temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon. Watching the film makes you feel hot. Its ability to immerse you makes you feel like you’re not watching a movie — you’re just there, watching these crazy characters go about their business.

That allows you to overlook how the characters are driven not by strong characterization and motivation, but by plot demands. Or how we see the same type of thing more than a few times, just with some of the pieces rearranged or switched out. It’s fun but it doesn’t go anywhere, I guess. I found it easy enough to overlook this but I can definitely see how others would not. The film engulfed my thoughts, meaning I couldn’t question it while it played. A re-watch might not be so successful.

The actors are compelling. This is a top-notch cast and some of them are so effective here that you don’t realize the actor until the credits. Billy Bob Thorton and Jon Voight are chameleons in U Turn. Sean Penn is a reliable lead. Nick Nolte is creepy as the husband of Jennifer Lopez as the sympathetic love interest — until the film takes a twist, a turn, and a hopscotch. Rule of threes, dear reader. Rule of threes.

U Turn is an odd movie that might not work when you look at it after it’s done, but while it’s playing it’s so immersive that you can easily overlook its flaws. It’s set in the desert heat and it makes you feel as if you’re there while its quirky cast of characters does the same thing over and over again. It’s repetitive and its characters are incredibly thin and driven by plot demands, but it doesn’t feel that way while it plays. Its actors are great, it has a style all its own, and for a single viewing I think U Turn is worth seeing.

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