1997, R, 125 min. Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Billy Bob Thornton.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Oct. 3, 1997

Seconds after the first few frames unspool, U-Turn declares itself as an Oliver Stone movie, no help needed from the flickery, peyote-dream credits. Yet for all its unmistakable visual trademarks (hypersaturated colors; mad-scientist tinkering with film stocks and editing technique; sudden presentation of enigmatic, troubling images), this is also the most radical departure Stone has ever made in terms of basic sensibilities. Using the already pitch-dark modern noir style of Red Rock West as a starting point, Stone pushes his story of murder, veiled motives, and sexual double-cross into realms of surreal excess that make John Dahl look like Ron Howard by comparison. The plot revolves around efforts by a hard-luck schmo (Penn) to get his car fixed in a podunk desert town and deliver some money he owes to hoods who are threatening to chop off one finger for every day he's late. But while his car is in the dubious “care” of a hideous redneck mechanic (Thornton, in a gloriously over-the-top performance), he falls into an absurdist hell in which random misfortunes and actively hostile local characters (portrayed in memorable cameos by stars ranging from Claire Danes to Jon Voight) conspire to thwart his every move. As the final stroke, he loses his cash. To earn it back, he accepts a murder-for-hire proposal from a jealous rich man (a grizzled, suitably creepy Nolte) who's plotting to kill his vixenish younger wife (Lopez) for her life insurance money. What makes this all so un-Stonelike is the flagrantly -- even exuberantly -- nihilistic tone of the story. Naysayers who've accused Oliver Stone of being oppressively earnest and moralistic will be astonished at U-Turn's energetic trashing of all major Western concepts of meaning, reason, and narrative convention. Some of this probably owes to the fact that this is the first major feature of Stone's career in which he takes no writing credit; the screenplay is by John Ridley from his novel Stray Dogs. But signs emerged in the reckless satiric tone of Natural Born Killers and ambivalent moral judgment of Nixon that Stone was growing dissatisfied with the righteous declamation of earlier films such as JFK and Born on the Fourth of July. The transition is complete with U-Turn. With a perverse, heedless glee, Stone recycles portentous images and themes (Native American sages, crows, stark desert landscapes) from his own back catalog in conjunction with troubling subject matter like incest and suicide to create expectations of profound moral issues being addressed. Then, with the subtlety of a vaudevillean pie-hurler, he trashes the whole setup, only to repeat the process again and again throughout the film. The ghastly humor of the final scene confirms Stone's intent: This is all an elaborate, cosmic farce, not an Olympian missive about the meaning of life, human nature or anything else. It's a cinematically stunning joke, and filled with remarkable performances (Lopez, in particular, taps her inner resources deeper than ever before) and a delightfully humorous and inventive score by Ennio Morricone, but a joke nonetheless. It seems that, midway through an ever-evolving, resolutely independent career, Oliver Stone has grown comfortable with that. Has his audience? We'll find out soon enough.

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U-Turn, Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Billy Bob Thornton

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