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Movie review: Leo – Southern Gothic

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This is an ambitious movie. It starts as Stephen (Joseph Fiennes) is released from prison. The very first scene we see him in will tie in nicely with the last scenes of the movie, so there's a cyclical movement here and two timelines that twist together nicely. We get to see the story unfold in more or less chronological order, interspersed with the chronological events of the story's "now". There is also a voice-over letting the viewer know that the past is being retold in literary form as a book that Stephen is writing.

The past is as intricate as the present. It's safe to say that Stephen's relationship with his mother Mary (Elisabeth Shue) is a complicated one. His father Ben (Jake Weber) and his younger sister die on the night of his birth. His mother is convinced that Stephen is the result of an adulterous mistake she made with the handyman Ryan (Justin Chambers) in desperation when she thought her husband was being unfaithful to her. She sees him as her punishment and treats him accordingly.

In a way this is a perfect Southern Gothic tale, complete with a huge decaying Southern mansion, rich in connotation for anyone who has read their Faulkner and Poe. There are a lot of conventions in play, both in the first timeline and in the second one. What saves it from being no more than a quick game of cliché bingo is the performances from Fiennes and, above all, Elisabeth Shue. Shue delivers a complex and nuanced performance as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and later as the embittered alcoholic bent on self destruction.

After the death of her husband, Mary (Shue) keeps up the relationship with Ryan and it becomes increasingly abusive and violent. It all culminates one night when it escalates to the point where young Stephen steps in with a frying pan and kills Ryan. The subsequent trial is painful to watch, Mary does not step up and defend her son's actions, instead consigning him to fifteen years in prison. To add insult to injury it's actually at the trial that she finds out that Stephen is her husband's son. She has been punishing him his whole life for no reason. Stephen takes the fifteen years as his due, and tells his mother that they can finally be done with all this now.

What I realize as I'm working on this review is that there is a lot of content here. The story is also told with a specific visual sensibility, all very crisp and clear and obviously very carefully thought through. There are some interesting choices when it comes to the colour and feel of the visual aspects. There are also visual representations of the literary voice-over that try to illustrate the imagery of the words. And it works really well, even if it feel a little overly artistic at times. Like I said in the opening paragraph, it's a very ambitious movie.

The “now” of the story takes place mostly at Vic's motel and diner. The owner Vic (Sam Shepard) takes in convicts, not out of the kindness of his heart, but because they are cheap labour. Vic's is in part owned by Horace (Dennis Hopper) who acts like he owns everything in the place, up to and including the harried waitress Caroline (Deborah Kara Unger). Hopper gives his usual bad guy-performance, a role we've seen him in before, but you can't really fault the director on that. Hopper plays that kind of sexualized evil with the ease of familiarity, just like Sam Shepard plays the grumpy Vic with all his quirks in the same all-under-the-surface manner that we're accustomed to.

The now and the past eventually converge when Leo/Stephen meets himself running along the banks of the Mississippi. They have a conversation about the past, the present and the future and it all rounds out the literariness of the story very nicely. There are really no lose ends.

Using clichés like this… it requires a lot of finesse. I am sufficiently steeped in literary- and cinematic knowledge to be familiar with all these things, the connotations and the literal intertextual references and the viewer has to accept that there are going to be things about this that feel naggingly familiar even if the way the clichés are used is original enough that it still feels worth while to watch and interesting to ponder afterwards. There's an very economic use of these conventions and clichés here that really make each scene incredibly dense in meaning. This is a movie that requires a little more than causal couch potato watching – and that's a good thing in my book.

Leo (2002) directed by Mehdi Norowzian stars Joseph Fiennes (Stephen/Leo), Jake Weber (Ben Bloom), Elisabeth Shue (Mary Bloom), Justin Chambers (Ryan), Sam Shepard (Vic), Dennis Hopper (Horace), Deborah Kara Unger (Caroline), Mary Stuart Masterson (Brynne), Davis Sweatt (Leopold, age 11) and James Middleton (Louis).

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