Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An exploration of how people's characters are formed

Jessica Chastain in "Jolene".
“Jolene” is an impressive film on several levels. There is a power to it, which accompanies so few movies. That power lies in the film’s ability to grab not the viewer’s attention, but their heart and mind. The story is that of a young girl who at 15 finds herself married and living in a small town with her working-class husband. Jolene tells us early on her parents have died and she spent her life in various foster homes where she was mistreated by her foster parents. She is excited to settle down and enjoy a comfortable future.

If you are someone who prefers to know very little about a film’s story before seeing it then you might prefer to wait until you’ve seen “Jolene” to finish this review. As a writer, I make a strong effort never to reveal any surprises and do not discuss anything not reasonably inferred from the trailer. My reviews may contain more information than someone who wants to go in completely fresh might like, but that is the nature of reviews. With that out of the way, Jolene doesn’t stay put for long and the movie plays out like a series of vignettes threaded together my this character as she travels through life. Jolene is played by Jessica Chastain. This was her first feature film and she won a Best Actress award at the Seattle International Film Festival for it. I’ve seen almost all of Chastain’s films and after seeing this it’s obvious why she quickly became one of the busiest actresses in the business.

What Chastain manages to do with this character is breathtaking. Over the course of the film she plays Jolene as a na├»ve teenager, someone running from her past, someone who is capable of being self-sufficient and who has weathered some rough patches. The transition is seamless and seemingly effortless. A miscast actress in this role could have made it an excruciating thing to watch as she went from an “Aw, shucks” personality and strait into a gruff tone of voice and cold, steely eyes to represent world weariness. Chastain does what a truly great performer does, which is actually become the character. Watching the character of Jolene is so much like watching an actual person metamorphose over time that it almost transcends filmmaking and becomes a real experience. The span of time in the movie is 10 years, but Chastain’s acting range in this role does more than the best Oscar-winning makeup effects could do in biopics spanning a greater length of time.

I can’t speak for others, but as I get older I find myself becoming more interested in and affected by films that have something to say about life’s effect on people. The simplistic black hats and white hats is uninteresting to me and I am fascinated by characters that are not good or bad, but simply products of their environments and who behave the best they can at the given time and circumstances. “Jolene” is an excellent exploration of how people are shaped by their experiences.

While married Jolene has an affair and the marriage ends badly. Her affair is a selfish act, but there is no malice motivating this. She is young and has not experienced much genuine affection before and to her it seems fine. She leaves town and gets a job working at drive-in burger joint somewhere in Arizona. What’s a cross-country journey film without a stop in Arizona? Her time here not only brings the next chapter in her life, but also allows for some of the film’s most striking scenery having been shot on location in Scottsdale. In every segment or chapter or vignette Jolene learns new skills, meets new people and enters a relationship. The men she meets include a shady tattoo artist (Rupert Friend), a mid-level Las Vegas mobster (Chazz Palminteri) and a wealthy businessman who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and is worse off for it (Michael Vartan). Of these three men I find it curious the one who treated Jolene with the most respect and showed her the most kindness was the mobster. I haven’t read the story “Jolene: A Life” by E.L. Doctorow, on which the film is based but perhaps there is something to this. The tattoo artist is disrespectful and dishonest and the businessman named Brad is physically and mentally abusive, but in keeping with this film’s theme of (as I see it) demonstrating how people become who they are because of life experience. The tattoo artist engages in an illegal side business because from his point of view it’s the only way to keep his shop open. The businessman’s parents gave him too much and he treats people badly as a result. On their first date he orders a bottle of wine and after a matter of seconds complains about the “incompetent waiter” for not having brought the wine yet. He berates the waiter. Jolene comments on how rude he is and he apologizes to the waiter. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Any woman who is turned off by someone mistreating a waiter or anyone in a service position is definitely a keeper, yet this scene illustrates how two people from different backgrounds can have completely different views of how to treat the same person. Jolene’s hardscrabble past has taught her humility and empathy, while the businessman’s privileged existence has created an unhealthy and almost pathological detachment from much of society.

Something great about “Jolene” is its exploration of different walks of life in America and its willingness to explore a type of character underrepresented in film. So often working-class characters serve only as decoration or support to the main character. It’s refreshing to see the story of someone who struggles to find their footing take priority. At the end of the film Jolene is wiser, but still hasn’t learned everything about life. Nobody ever does.