As the first Oliver Stone movie — or at least the first one since he became a great filmmaker — to gleefully dispense with sociopolitical significance, U-Turn (TriStar) is an overdue event, a chance for Stone to apply his hypnotic acid-trip-of-the-soul wizardry to something sexy and lowdown. Set in the kind of sunbaked and dilapidated 50-miles-from-nowhere hick town that looks like the backdrop for an apocalyptic beer commercial, the movie is a spectacularly scuzzy comedy of fate, a film noir that winks at you. The hero, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), is a gambler who has seen better days (his hand, we learn, has recently been separated from two of its fingers). Driving to Las Vegas, Bobby looks tough enough, with his suavely disheveled jet-black coif, his James Dean postures, and — what else could this man possibly drive? — his vintage red Mustang convertible. At the same time, the film lets us know that he’s basically a disreputable dog.
When Bobby’s car blows its radiator hose, he wheels it into Superior, Ariz., a mining village so cruddy and depressing it’s like Tijuana as a ghost town. The temperature is about a zillion degrees (sweat could be the local industry), and the sun isn’t the only thing that’s overheating. The moment Bobby arrives, bad voodoo seems to emanate from everywhere. It starts with the local mechanic, played — hilariously — by Billy Bob Thornton as a hostile pigpen slob (dirt is practically etched into his skin). This walking grease pit seems to take great delight in inconveniencing Bobby, and, in fact, the slyly sinister joke of the movie is that everything that happens to poor Bobby is, in essence, a form of karma: cosmic payback for his being a hustler and a lout. He’s a man with no loyalty — he’ll say anything to get what he wants — and now the world is refusing to show loyalty to him.
Wandering the streets, Bobby is assailed by such Twilight Zone locals as a blind but all-seeing Native American derelict (Jon Voight) and a dimply, down-home nymphet (Claire Danes) who keeps showing up to bat her eyelashes at him, tailed by her violent hulk of a boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix, in a magnetic bit of sociopathic shtick). Is there a femme fatale? Do you even have to ask? Bobby catches the eye of Grace (Jennifer Lopez), a sultry beauty so cool and sleek she stands out from Superior like a glass of Dom Perignon atop a dunghill. He also meets Jake (Nick Nolte), her raging psycho of a husband. It’s soon unclear who wants to pay who to do away with whom. Nolte, looking like Tom Waits’ horror-movie cousin, leers and rasps and generally has a wild time playing the scummiest scumbag of his career.
The chain-of-disaster form of U-Turn is, by now, a genre all its own — call it Rube Goldberg noir. I’m speaking of such black comedies of entropic coincidence as After Hours and Red Rock West. Stone, drawing on Westerns from Duel in the Sun to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, infuses the genre with his dazzling gift for ambiguous poetic menace. The surprises in U-Turn aren’t simply the plot twists, which hinge on such merry subjects as incest; they’re the haunting flashes of dread, memory, and desire within the twists. Stone, working in the dense channel-surfing style of JFK and Natural Born Killers, makes every shot a jolt, a sliver of ominous perception.
The first two thirds of U-Turn is a rude, seductive head bender. But around the time it turns from day to night, the film begins to lose its tricky aura of borderline surreal mystery. It becomes another rigged, what-will-happen-next suspense game, and you begin to sense just how arbitrary the twists are. Stone was right to want to apply his gifts to a hip, throwaway thriller. By the end, though, he can’t resist inflating it to something larger — a blood opera of sadomasochistic love. Less, in this case, would have been more. B+