On the road with­out a map

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

mer­i­can Honey is the first Amer­i­can film by Bri­tish writer-direc­tor An­drea Arnold, known for her Lon­don coun­cil es­tate fam­ily drama Fish Tank (2009). Cen­tred on a mot­ley crew of young Amer­i­cans who sell mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tions door-to-door, and fea­tur­ing a cast of pro­fes­sional ac­tors and non-pro­fes­sion­als the direc­tor found while scout­ing the US, it is an in­trigu­ing film de­spite its con­sid­er­able ir­ri­ta­tions.

The (al­most) never-end­ing ir­ri­ta­tion is the length of the movie. At 162 min­utes it is far too long and as a re­sult loses sight of it­self for ex­tended pe­ri­ods. Yet I watched with in­ter­est un­til the end, keen to find out if some­thing — any­thing — would hap­pen to the two main char­ac­ters, Star (Sasha Lane, who Arnold found on a beach) and Jake (full-on ac­tor Shia LaBeouf).

This goes to an­other an­noy­ing as­pect: the twen­tysome­things trav­el­ling across mid­dle Amer­ica in a van, mu­sic blar­ing, are un­lik­able. They are not bad kids nec­es­sar­ily, though there are oc­ca­sional hints of bad­ness, but self-ab­sorbed, un­in­tel­li­gent and bor­ing. When Star was ap­proached by a bear late in pro­ceed­ings I had high hopes it was a re­turn of the fur ball who ruf­fled Leo Di­Caprio in The Revenant. Hav­ing said that, peo­ple Star’s age, or par­ents of peo­ple her age, may like her and the oth­ers more.

We first see Star dump­ster-div­ing with two young chil­dren. They lib­er­ate a frozen chicken. A van roars into the shop­ping strip park­ing lot. Some of the young pas­sen­gers hang their ar­ses out of the win­dow. Star meets the rest of them, in­clud­ing Jake, in­side a su­per­mar­ket, where they carry on sillily. It’s all man-buns and tat­toos, shorts and sneak­ers, booze and dope, and one bloke pulls out his young fella.

Yet there’s an im­me­di­ate sex­ual ten­sion be­tween Star and Jake, which the ac­tors pull off con­vinc­ingly, and he in­vites her to join the gang on their trip to sell sub­scrip­tions. Jake is con­vinced he can sell to any­one by first work­ing out their per­son­al­ity and cir­cum­stances. He looks more ma­ture than the oth­ers, but we know looks can be de­ceiv­ing.

Star wants in. She takes the chil­dren back to their un­in­ter­ested mother and re­turns to meet the head of the busi­ness, Krystal (Ri­ley Keough), who is wear­ing a red bikini top and cut­off denim shorts. She is, by her own ac­count, “a real Amer­i­can honey’’, and she has a hold on Jake.

Star jumps in the van. “We do more than work,’’ one of the mis­fits tells her. “We ex­plore Amer­ica, we party, we do all sorts of shit. It’s cool.’’ And so be­gins a road trip with­out much of a map. The young peo­ple head into wealth­ier ar­eas and knock on doors. They try to sell mag­a­zines by any means: bluff, blus­ter, un­true per­sonal sto­ries, fake char­ity drives. So-called mag­a­zine crews are a real and some­times con­tro­ver­sial busi­ness in the US. There’s a sense of cultish be­hav­iour here, par­tic­u­larly with edgy Jake and drained-eyed Krystal. Both LaBeouf and Keough de­liver strong, dark per­for­mances.

How­ever, the two best mo­ments are due to fully-grown adults. The first is an ex­tended, dis­con­cert­ing se­quence when Star is picked up by four mid­dle-aged cow­boys and taken to their up­scale ranch. The men all wear white hats, but they are not in a car­toon western. The sec­ond is when a rugged oil­field worker pays Star a grand to go on a date with him. Both these ex­changes be­tween Star and the grown-up world go in sur­pris­ing di­rec­tions. Arnold’s em­pa­thetic con­nec­tion to young peo­ple, how they think and act, is clear, as it was with the 15-year-old lead char­ac­ter in Fish Tank.

And while this road trip has no map it does in a sense turn full cir­cle. When Star tells the cow­boys her mother died three years ago, one asks if it was can­cer. Star looks at him di­rectly. “Meth.’’ Like sev­eral Amer­i­can films of re­cent times, Amer­i­can Honey is in­ter­ested in the dis- The Amer­i­can Honey, gruntle­ment of large sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion, a so­cio-eco­nomic un­hap­pi­ness that came to the fore in the pres­i­den­tial election cam­paign. For all its flaws, it’s a strangely ab­sorb­ing film. Gavin O’Con­nor’s The Ac­coun­tant is also about Amer­i­can money, but lots more than can be made by sell­ing sub­scrip­tions to Forbes. Chris­tian Wolff (Ben Af­fleck) is a highly func­tion­ing autis­tic maths ge­nius who works as an ac­coun­tant for crim­i­nal or­gan­i­sa­tions. Af­fleck is bril­liant in re­veal­ing the nu­ances of this man, es­pe­cially early on. He avoids eye con­tact, he speaks with blunt lit­er­al­ness, he wears a pocket pro­tec­tor, he has a min­i­mal­ist cut­lery drawer that per­son­ally I ad­mire.

We learn more of his life through flash­backs to his child­hood. He ag­o­nises over a jig­saw puz­zle be­cause a piece is miss­ing. His brother, Brax­ton, is a reg­u­lar boy. Their fa­ther is a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer and he thinks his chal­lenged son should con­front the world not hide from it. This pa­ter­nal pact will be­come im­por­tant. As will the su­perbly am­bigu­ous open­ing scene, which seems to in­volve a mass shoot­ing in a New York apart­ment build­ing.

The main story sees Wolff sud­denly un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by se­nior Trea­sury of­fi­cial Ray King (JK Sim­mons), who re­cruits an up-an­com­ing ju­nior of­fi­cer, Mary­beth Me­d­ina (Cyn­thia Ad­dai-Robin­son), to help. Wolff’s con­troller, who we hear only as a voice, de­cides he must dis­tract at­ten­tion by tak­ing on a le­git­i­mate job, look­ing over the books of med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy firm Liv­ing Robotics.

He is hired be­cause an in-house ac­coun­tant, Dana Cum­mings (Anna Ken­drick), found a large hole in the bal­ance sheet. This hole quickly be­comes dark. A pro­fes­sional as­sas­sin is hired to take out Wolff and Cum­mings. The firm is run by La­mar Black­burn (John Lith­gow), who may be an­other tar­get, or who may be the one pulling the hit man’s strings.

This is such a good idea for a film — an ac­tion thriller cen­tred on an autis­tic ac­coun­tant — and the first half is a plea­sure to watch, es­pe­cially when Af­fleck and Ken­drick are on screen. These two sa­vants sort of like each other, if they could just put their tex­tas aside for while. O’Con­nor is good at ex­plor­ing un­usual peo­ple, as he did in the Joel Edger­ton-Tom Hardy fight film War­rior.

But un­for­tu­nately this one runs out of steam and be­comes more of a shoot now, ask ques­tions later (or never) flick. The be­hav­iour of the char­ac­ters be­comes hard to be­lieve and the cli­mac­tic twists are ob­vi­ous and cliched. And just in case any­one is still in the dark, there’s a long te­dious scene in which JK Sim­mons, as King, ba­si­cally ex­plains the en­tire plot. Now, that was a mo­ment I did feel like leav­ing. In­deed by the end the film re­sem­bles a com­edy, which I doubt is the in­ten­tion.

Ben Af­fleck in Ac­coun­tant, top; Shia LaBeouf and Sasha Lane in left

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