Ulee's Gold
directed by Victor Nunez
Orion, 1997

The camera pans across a Gulf County, Fla., swamp, home to a couple of million bees and a half-sunken truck that's about to rise again and haunt local beekeeper Ulee Jackson.

Ulee (Peter Fonda) is a man destined to give Job a run for his money. The sole survivor of his company in Vietnam, he's now the sole support of the Jackson clan back home: his wife has died, his son's in jail, his daughter-in-law's run off and his granddaughters chafe under Ulee's close but compassionless supervision.

Then things really get bad.

Writer-director Victor Nunez has visited this locale before, with Ruby in Paradise, a small film that made a big impression on movie buffs. In it, he mined the heart of a young woman escaping an abusive relationship and building a new life for herself in a resort town.

He's back five years later with a new main character, but the same technique: long shots of low flat landscapes, two-lane blacktops that stretch into inky blackness, sunsets you want to stick a dessert spoon into, dialogue that reveals more than its characters want it to. And always the camera is trained at the heart of someone's heart.

Exactly what's eating Ulee we never find out. We know that he's worked hard all his life -- Nunez offers a bee by bee description of the honeymaking process -- but this is no Three Faces of Eve. What's important here is how Ulee reacts -- or doesn't react -- to outward events.

Those events begin with a phone call from Ulee's son Jimmy (Tom Wood), who's in prison for armed robbery. Jimmy has just learned that his holdup partners (Steven Flynn and Dewey Weber) have hooked up with his drug-addled wife (Christine Dunford), who's told them where Jimmy stashed the robbery loot. And they're threatening to hurt Ulee's family, or what's left of it, if they don't get their share -- all of it.

That makes Ulee's Gold something like Air Force One without the plane, and with some other notable differences.

The first is Fonda, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ulee. It's a reserved performance, one that improves with age, as has Fonda, who's traded in his biker shades for wire rims but still looks too young to be granddad to a teen-ager.

Moreover, Ulee's moral dilemma is a lot more real than Harrison Ford's in Air Force One, and so is the moral fiber that's tested by the dilemma. It's no easy job being Job, and Fonda brings home that challenge in minute detail.

Car-chase fans will no doubt be disappointed, and people who fall asleep between gunfights will emerge from Ulee's Gold well rested. But those who can content themselves with something beautiful to look at, something heartwrenching to listen to and something substantive to think about will no doubt be satisfied.

Ulee's Gold is the mother lode.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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