Ulee's Gold Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

You've reminded me that there are a lot of weakness in the world, and not all of it is evil.

The Chinese word for 'crisis' is actually a composite of two other words: 'danger' and 'opportunity', a reflection of the two contrasting aspects of a given situation. In "Ulee's Gold", an unassuming film from writer/director Victor Nunez (1984's "A Flash of Green", 1993's "Ruby in Paradise"), an unassuming beekeeper named Ulysses 'Ulee' Jackson finds himself in a crisis, which not only endangers those that he cares about, but is also the catalyst for self-discovery and his reconnection to those around him.

Everything Ulee Jackson touches becomes fucked up!

Peter Fonda (last seen as an aged surfer in "Escape from L.A."), brings a subdued quality to his performance as the world-weary and introspective protagonist, who immerses himself in the rigid structure of his work, harvesting honey in Gulf County, Florida. He finds it much easier to relate to the bees-- "The bees and I have an understanding", than to his shattered family. He was the only member of his platoon to survive an assault in Vietnam. His wife passed away six years prior, and Ulee often wonders if 'she was ever happy'. He has not spoken to his son, Jimmy (Tom Wood), in two years because of his involvement and eventual arrest for a bank robbery. His daughter-in-law, Helen (Christine Dunford), walked out on her two children, leaving Ulee to look after them. Penny (Vanessa Zima) is the younger daughter, who misses her mother, and Casey (Jessica Biel) is a rebellious teenager who hates the mother that abandoned her and can't stand Ulee.

You like sad, don't you?
No... but it makes you quiet inside.

One day, during the busiest harvesting season, Ulee receives a call from Jimmy, asking for help. Ulee visits his son in jail, and Jimmy asks Ulee to get Helen, who has shown up strung out on drugs at the home of his former partners-in-crime, Ferris (Dewey Weber) and Eddie (Steven Flynn). Ulee then reluctantly travels to the seedy apartment of Ferris and Eddie in Orlando and finds a disheveled Helen passed out from 'roofers' (Rohypnol, the infamous 'date rape' drug). It is clear that Helen has been mistreated at the hands of Ferris and Eddie. But before the two unsavory bank robbers allow Ulee to take Helen away, they demand that Ulee deliver some money that Jimmy had hidden after the botched bank robbery, or else they will come after the whole family.

The Jacksons always solve their own problems... no outsiders.

Ulee brings Helen home, and through a painful process involving sedatives, restraints, and emotionally exhausting care-giving, detoxifies Helen with the help of a next-door neighbor, Connie Hope (Patricia Richardson of "Home Improvement"), a nurse at a local hospital. As the story unfolds at a casual pace, the fractured Jackson family rebuild their lives around the structure of Ulee's beekeeping business, Ulee learns to break free of his self-imposed isolation, and the house of Jackson is transformed from one of cold silence to one of laughter.

At first glance, "Ulee's Gold" does not seem to have much to separate it from the other films of recent years with soft-spoken protagonists from the American South who find redemption in a small town, such as "Forrest Gump", "The Spitfire Grill", and "Sling Blade". Like those films, it is a drama in the European style, slowly revealing a complex web of relationships and backstory, with often cliché plot points derived from over-used melodramatic conventions. But like the films before it, it is the mellowed performances of the actors in "Ulee's Gold" that make it memorable. Watching this film is more of a voyeuristic and poignant peek into the ordinary lives of ordinary people. What is also interesting is the integration of the back-breaking work of beekeeping into the main plot, serving as a parallel for the transformation of the Jackson family.

Though "Ulee's Gold" is not a technically-stunning film, save for the sporadic Jean-Luc Goddard-invented jump cut, it is nonetheless a captivating drama that reveals the quieter and deeper abilities of Peter Fonda as an actor, and is another triumph in the emotionally-engaging portfolio of Victor Nunez.

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