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Pop quiz: Aside from Easy Rider and a couple of other seminal Sixties biker flicks, how many of actor/director Peter Fonda's thirty movies do you know? Mercenary Fighters? How about Wanda Nevada, Outlaw Blues or Spasms? Got your own videotape of Hawken's Breed?
Ulee's Gold is something of a milestone, then, and steeped in a certain irony. Peter Fonda never got to play Abraham Lincoln, Tom Joad, Wyatt Earp or Mister Roberts. But in Victor Nunez's quiet, intense drama about a grieving north Florida beekeeper who must put back together what's left of his shattered family, Fonda the Younger has finally found a role with the kind of depth and substance that always suited his late father. At age 58, Peter now even looks and seems so much like the mature Henry Fonda--those acres of forehead, the measured heartland voice, the gravity and monumental American believability--that it's almost like watching a ghost up there on the screen.
But let's give proper credit to a man who's paid his dues. Fonda's Ulee Jackson is an upright craftsman, a quiet Vietnam War veteran with a limp who's taken complete refuge in the annual production of his sublime tupelo honey because he can't get over the death of his wife, Penelope, six years earlier. What we come to see, even if we've never noticed it before, is that Fonda is also a craftsman--not merely his father's son (although the offscreen Henry also kept bees) but an actor who understands on his own the value of silence and respects the power of the small, well-chosen gesture. Despite his money in the bank, Fonda's career has been a hard ride; he's always been better than the world gave him credit for, and now he deserves our unequivocal respect.
Ulee (short for Ulysses) might live out his days in swamp-light, hidden in his cocoon, because, as he says: "I've got used to goin' it alone." But crises erupt. His wayward son, Jimmy (Tom Wood), is in the penitentiary for robbery, his troubled daughter-in-law, Helen (Christine Dunford), has vanished into the drug dens of Orlando, and it has fallen to Ulee to raise two granddaughters--Casey (Jessica Biel), an ever-more-defiant teenager, and Penny (Vanessa Zima), a vulnerable nine-year-old. When Ulee learns that the daughter-in-law has run afoul of two of Jimmy's scummy former partners in crime, the widower who always goes it alone must reluctantly take action and bring her home. The plot--and the dangers--are complicated by a hundred grand in stashed robbery money.
Writer/director Nunez, who provided a vivid taste of northwest Florida's "Redneck Riviera" in Ashley Judd's debut Ruby in Paradise, once more shows unerring instincts for the humid backwaters of his native state. He knows the landscape, from the reek of small-town beer joints to the otherworldly coils of the banyan trees. He understands the fatalistic drift of desperadoes like Helen Jackson and the grimy ambitions of small-time thieves like Jimmy's pals, Eddie and Ferris (Steven Flynn and Dewey Weber). He knows the booze they drink and the wrecks they drive.
Here, he and Fonda also reveal the trials of an old-fashioned man who must once more go to war and, in the process, come out of the woods. He gets help from a next-door nurse aptly named Connie Hope (Patricia Richardson), who's had some troubles of her own.
Ulysses? Penelope? Helen? Nunez's references to The Odyssey are multifold and casual, but he's not the kind of moviemaker to enslave a story to epic myth. In his way, Ulee Jackson battles the north Florida equivalents of Scylla and Charybdis, but those who've never read a line of Homer will still get the point. The real demons, as always, lie within Ulee himself. Grief and detachment have deadened his soul. In order to save himself and bring the bees back to the hive--the movie's more insistent symbolism--he's got to stir, even sting.
There are some harrowing scenes in Ulee's Gold--Helen's screaming, convulsive drug withdrawal and the half-wit Ferris's filthy coziness with young Casey come to mind. But Nunez's lovely, mysterious beekeeping scenes are even more interesting. For the most part, this is an exceptionally contemplative movie, one characterized by fine acting and inner turmoil that the cast manages to make palpable. There are, for instance, none of the revenge fireworks that juiced up Martin Scorsese's recent remake of Cape Fear, and it doesn't rely much on gunplay. Ulysses-as-Fonda has to resist a cyclops and a cannibal or two, but he's a thinking man now, clearly devoted to his craft. It's a beautiful thing to see, an artist come into his prime at last. But then, on the long road home to Ithaca, there are no easy riders.
Written and directed by Victor Nunez. With Peter Fonda, Christine Dunford, Patricia Richardson, Tom Wood and Jessica Biel.
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