On the road without a map
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