Movie Review: Jessica Chastain Shines as E.L. Doctorow’s “Jolene”

E.L. Doctorow hasn’t cared much for the film adaptations of his work. For good reason,  as sprawling novels are rarely successfully reduced  to photoplays. Rumor has it that he  feels differently about Dan Ireland’s film of his 35-page short story, “Jolene: A Life.” It is pretty hard to imagine the author disliking the movie, as Dennis Yares’ screenplay provides as faithful a treatment as one might expect from a film writer.

It has been said that the best movies come, not from novels, but from short stories, and there are plenty of examples to support such beliefs.  Daphne de Maurier’s “The Birds,” Julio Cortázar’s “Blow-Up,” Charles’ Bukowski’s “The  Most Beautiful Woman in Town,”  and James Joyce’s “The Dead” are a few  examples of short stories that have been the source of excellent films.   I can’t, however, think of  a more literal, almost line-for line, translation of a short story to film, one that is as cinematic as it is literary, than Yares’  screenplay for Ireland’s film of Doctorow’s “Jolene.”

Along with SIFF co-founder Darryl MacDonald, Ireland was instrumental in bringing the Dutch cinema  of the 1970’s, in particularly the early films of Paul Verhoeven, to  the United States. I hadn’t noticed the influence of the Dutch upon Ireland’s own films, which include “The Whole Wide World” and “Mrs.  Palfrey at the Claremont,” until  about half an hour into “Jolene,” when the brightness of its sordid story made me recall Verhoeven’s “Keetje Tippel,” a similarly themed fairy tale following the amorous adventures of a bedraggled beauty through the bedrooms of the rich and the poor.

Jessica Chastain is just as lucky as the character she plays.  The title role in a theatrical production of “Salome” starring  Al Pacino led to her winning the part of “Jolene,” which subsequently brought her to the attention of director Terrence Malick, who cast her across from Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in “Tree of Life.”  Physically, she is something of a cross between  Monique Van der Van (Keetje Tippel)_ and Elizabeth Barkley, from Verhooven’s unappreciated and misunderstood “Showgirls.”  She displays an unexpected virtuosity as “Jolene,” beginning  as an  impulsive tramp who can’t say no,  then sliding  into the rut of a   teenage widow cohabiting with a drug dealing tattoo artist, eventualyy graduating  to the delicately miserable  caged bird in a gangster’s penthouse, and finally submitting  to the fate of  the abused wife of a born again billionaire.   It is a tour de force performance, in which  Chastain doesn’t stoop to tricks of sympathy, but wins the empathy of the audience with pitiless honesty and resilient pride. In the five years since “Jolene,” Chastain has proven a major disappointment.  She is the kind of actress who does exactly what the director asks of her, and unfortunately most directors are not fit to shine Dan Ireland’s shoes.  She hit rock bottom in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,”  but made something of a comeback in Liv Ullman’s “Miss Julie. There is still hope for her, if only she is choosier about who she works with, and doesn’t allow her talent to be drained into a ditch by the likes of Bigelow.

For “Jolene,” Ireland   assembled a cast that is  practically the mirror image of Doctorow’s characters, even when details are somewhat altered.   Dermot Mulroney is perfect as the lecherous Uncle Phil with an eye on his nephew’s 15-year old bride, as is Rupert Friend as the too-cool-to-be-real Coco Lerger.  Theresa Russell’s Aunt Kay has been retooled as a Southerner, but she is just as uptight as a Yankee.  Chazz Palminteri   lacks   Sal Fontaine’s girth, but   he carries his age as heavily as if it were excess weight.  Francis Fisher captures both the initial reticence and subsequent obsession as the prison guard who kidnaps Jolene from the reformatory to make her a personal house slave. and   Michael Vartan is frightening as the utterly insane rich boy who marries Jolene  in response to a vision from Jesus Christ.

A panoply of old-world   influences helps Ireland liberate  “Jolene” from  the monotony of the typical American road picture.  Each of Jolene’s adventures brings her into  new  environmental and social realities. In addition to the Verhoeven influence, which makes itself felt not only in the variety of disparate moods that never  clash, but in the emotional use of settings, among then a    Las Vegas that is part ‘One from the Heart“ and part  “Showgirls,” and a desert hamburger joint  evoking  both “American Graffiti” and “My Blueberry Nights.”

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