Sometimes I don't understand what makes people dislike a film. Or why one film is widely considered "bad" and another "good," when to me they don't seem that far apart. One example is this, which I enjoyed and kept me involved all the way through--even as I had trouble putting my finger on exactly WHAT I was seeing--yet when we came out, my friend said he thought it was objectively bad and that it was getting about half reviews saying it is bad, and then today I've read a few reviews talking about how awful it is. Huh, I don't get it.
We open with a woman being interviewed, a quick logo, and a recap of a 1965 Florida law case in which a racist cop was finally killed. The thing is--you've just been watching a bunch of trailers, and it starts off like another trailer, so you're watching it with that "Would I go see that?" mindset before you realize that you're actually in the movie. A woman, Anita, played by Macy Gray, is being interviewed about the case and her involvement. We start to introduce our characters, Zac Efron as Jack, younger brother of Matthew McConaughey as Wade, who you notice has scars on either side of his mouth, where it had been cut open. Wade arrives with African-American Yardley, who says he is from London and treats even his friends with a snooty intellectual contempt. Then there's Nicole Kidman as Charlotte, with a blonde wig and huge black fake eyelashes. She is dating the man they are trying to free (Wade and Yardley are reporters), Hillary, who is facing the electric chair for murdering the racist sheriff. It is now 1969.
Quite soon into the film I gave up trying to take notes, as there are too many characters, too many plot threads and very few of them intersect with each other in any sort of meaningful way. Jack is in lust with Charlotte, who is the type of woman who says things like "You're probably sittin' there thinkin' you want me to give you a blow job, but I don't feel like it." They go to see Hillary in jail, and he won't answer their questions, because he's too interested in Charlotte miming sex for him, which she does with hilarious gusto. Everyone says Jon Cusack is miscast as Hillary, but again, he convinced me. Kidman also shows no trace that she's herself or that she's condescending to this character, and it works. She has a shining moment of acting skill late in the film in which a man is approaching her for sex, and she is trying to play nice while she is able to show her terror with her eyes. Gray was also a revelation and completely charming and convincing, and I was reminded that director Lee Daniels was similarly able to get warm, likable performances out of Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey in Precious.
Matters continue. None of them ever seem that interested in working on the case, and Hillary certainly doesn't seem like a man worthy of being saved. When he viciously curses at Charlotte for not wearing a dress to prison, you can sense that he might not be the right guy for her. When Wade and Jack go out to his buddy's house in the swamp (I mean: SWAMP) you get creeped out and feel horror at those people. Once Yardley sleeps with Charlotte, Wade and Yardley grow more distant, and eventually Yardley disappears.
Eventually things turn toward the dire, the violent, the terrifying and the harrowing. I went in expecting an amusing film about trashy characters, but had no idea it was going to get so dark and horrifying. The last few minutes are more horror film than anything. And when it's over you're left with a feeling of "What did I just see?"
Outside the theater, my friend complained about how "bad" it was. There are whole threads and characters that come out of nowhere, and vanish just as quickly. The narration comes and goes without much sense. There are relationships that don't make sense--most notably Charlotte and Hillary, as it just doesn't add up that she would be with a person like that--but you have to just accept them. I guess--but somehow, none of that bothered me. It seemed more artistic then just senseless, and I suspect that it's less about not knowing how to tell a coherent story than it is an embodiment of a certain kind of Southern vernacular storytelling, which is meandering and highly subjective and skips about. Don't forget the entire thing is the recollections of the maid as she is interviewed by police.
One also doesn't walk out with a solid sense of the themes, but it seems that almost all of the stories revolve around loving the wrong person. Front and center is Jack's love for Charlotte, who expresses this by saying "You have your whole life ahead if you and you want ME." Charlotte and Wade both make phenomenally wrong choices in men. The whole case to free Hillary is misguided, and based on misapproximations of who he is. Yardley is revealed to be not at all what he appears. Even the boys' father has made a horrible choice in a new wife. The message, if there is one, revolves around idiotic and dangerous choices one makes based on fantasies one has about others, who they are and what they'll be able to do for you. It seems to have some thematic overlap with The Master in terms of being about projecting hopes onto other people, and finding those hopes to be quite wrong. Girl, ain't it the truth.
I would. Leave your expectations outside and just go with what you see. It may not be the best thing, but it sure is SOMETHING.