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U Turn

Year: 1997
Production Co: Phoenix Pictures
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: John Ridley
Cast: Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Powers Boothe, Claire Danes, Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Bob Thornton, Laurie Metcalf, Jon Voight, Nick Nolte

Oliver Stone doing a noir thriller was always going to be a good idea. With the trippy visuals that made Natural Born Killers so kinetic and a cast of oddball characters that could only exist in a small town in the desert, hero Bobby (Penn) finds himself in a place that would be just as at home in a David Lynch film. In fact it's possible Stone was homaging Lynch, consciously or otherwise.

The plot is simply that a small time hood has gangsters on his tail having already hurt him badly, and his car breaks down in the desert not far from a flyspeck town. All he wants to do is get his car fixed and get out of there, but in between the hillbilly mechanic (Thornton), the hoodlum who thinks he's much tougher than he is (Phoenix) and the blind Native American who sees much more than he lets on (Voight), Bobby wonders if he's stumbled into another dimension, and so will you.

Even more diverting, the beautiful Grace (Lopez, never as beautiful and with a Monroe-esque blend of sex appeal and innocence) seems receptive to Bobby's advances. The only obstacle is her grizzled older husband (Nolte), a man who has a frightening hold over her and around whom Bobby can sense an air of threat.

It veers between violent, strange and laugh-out-loud funny at times – such as when Bobby finally goes toe to toe with Phoenix's hoodlum Toby. Penn manages to edge in enough characterisation to make Bobby interesting but both he and Stone seem to realise he's the eyes and ears of the audience – we can only watch this colourful human procession through a mostly balanced view.

There are probably a hundred subtexts, movie references and symbols scattered through it, but even if you don't spot any you'll still enjoy it. It was Stone's first film after Nixon, and must have been like a holiday after the hard-hitting worthy political films he'd built his career on.

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