Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fellow Travelers (Trucker and Lost, S6 Premiere: "LA X")

I like Michelle Monaghan. In the three films I recall seeing her in (she's been in a couple more where I don't remember), she's exhibited a no-bullshit straight-shooter's focus and a sharp-elbowed physicality that resembles Evangeline Lilly with acting chops. She elevated what could have been stereotypical squeezes in the spry comic noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the effectively grim procedural Gone Baby Gone; she even gets the pivotal moment in the latter movie, jumping from a cliff into water to save a child with an unpremeditated impulsiveness that's selflessly appealing.

Now, in Trucker, Monaghan sinks her teeth into the best role of her young career, a stand-out performance in an even more pitiful year than usual for plum female parts. She plays Diane Ford, a hard-edged loner who drives a big rig for a living and prides herself on delivering shipments early. It's always an encouraging sign when a movie's female characters get to have last names -- or when they get to be unapologetic about their sexuality, as conveyed in the opening scene, when a random pickup concludes with the guy struggling to make small-talk in bed and Diane bolting out the door.

Diane, as you quickly glean, is the kind of woman who makes men unsure of themselves. We see this in her cockteasing relationship back home with the married Runner (Nathan Fillion), and when we learn that years ago she left her husband Len (Benjamin Bratt) and young son Peter (Jimmy Bennett) because she couldn't handle being a stay-at-home mom. When Len becomes bedridden with cancer, and his live-in girlfriend (Joey Lauren Adams) preoccupied with helping him, 11-year-old Peter is left in the unwelcoming arms of Diane, who is forced to take him with her on the road.

I'll grant that this plot has been done to death, notably in treacly comedies starring either Adam Sandler or The Rock, but I've never seen it play out in quite the same way. To observe that Diane and Peter cramp each other's styles would be an understatement: he calls her "bitch" and she calls him "little shit" with enough barbed abandon to make one nostalgic for family reunions. If they do gradually come to a degree of mutual trust and understanding, it's in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back manner that feels true to life.

Trucker is the feature debut of writer-director James Mottern, and he clearly has affection for the blue-collar southern California milieu that is rarely noticed in movies. He avoids for the most part histrionics and cliches, particularly with Fillion and Bratt's characters. It's a great relief to find men in a movie like this who negate the wife-beater archetype, who are afforded some humor and charm so that we can actually see what might attract a woman like Diane in the first place. The DP, Lawrence Sher, caresses images so lovingly (namely an Altmanesque long reverse-zoom of Diane's rig pulling out of her driveway onto the interstate at the crack of dawn) that I'm inclined to believe the shoddy look of The Hangover wasn't his fault.

And then there's Monaghan, who effortlessly navigates Diane's uneasy mix of guilt and rage and longing and self-denial. ("I wasn't that person," she tells Peter unconvincingly). There are times when the dialogue sounds a little too on the nose (e.g., Peter informing Diane, "You're the most frightened person I know"), but then again I'm happy to see lower-middle-class characters expressing themselves with eloquence. Trucker is a buried treasure of a movie, and as its wonderful ending makes clear, a deeply affecting love story between a mother and son.

One gripe I've heard about Trucker has been that nobody as beautiful as Michelle Monaghan would earn a living driving a truck. But I can suspend disbelief just fine if the emotions feel real, whether it be with ravishingly gorgeous truck-drivers or magical islands inhabited by smoke monsters. That's my stance upon entering the sixth and final season of Lost; either you're on board with its whacked-out premise by now or you're watching CSI, and the ecstatically entertaining season premiere, brilliantly titled "LA X," had me at hello.

Or rather make that "Come on, you son of a bitch!", the sentiment uttered by Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) in last season's cliffhanger finale as she detonated the bomb that faded the screen to white. "LA X" begins with the aftermath, which ingeniously splits into parallel storylines: one where the blast sends everyone back to 2004, where Oceanic Flight 815 lands in Los Angeles as Jack (Matthew Fox) intended; and one that propels the characters from last year's 70s timeframe to 2007 where all remain captive on an island with dependency issues.

"I know it's jerking me around," my mother once said of Lost, "yet for some reason I don't mind as much." Unlike standard-bearing jerk-around shows Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Lost has stayed fresh due to an uncanny ability to reinvent itself. After floundering through parts of season 2 and the entire first half of season 3, the series' creators smartly set an end-game; and with that aim in sight began to reconfigure the plot each year -- flash-forwards, time-travel, and now alternate-realities tweaking a structure that was beginning to grow too familiar. Many of the actors seem reinvigorated as well, especially Terry O'Quinn who, in "LA X," got to play two new versions of Locke: one on the island possessed by someone (or something) with a mission certain to spell trouble; another on the mainland whose wheelchair-bound encounter with spinal-surgeon Jack at the airport may give him a chance to walk again.

"LA X" was both cathartic and a hell of a lot of fun, from Jack's refreshing humility to Machiavellian schemer Ben Linus's (Michael Emerson) long-overdue comeuppance. It probably helps one's enjoyment not to take the show's mysteries too seriously. I'm invested in the characters. And when my favorite, Sayid (Naveen Andrews), wakes up at the climax, possibly possessed by Jacob, I don't stay up nights diagramming what it all means. I wonder instead if master storyteller Joss Whedon, whose habit of killing off characters only to repeatedly resurrect them had a way of diluting the impact, watches with a grin and a shake of his head, at the crossroads between admiration and envy.


Craig said...

I like how Ebert begins his review: "There's one of those perfect moments in 'Trucker' when I'm thinking, This is the moment to end! Now! Fade to black! And the movie ends." I thought the exact same thing. I don't care much for the contrivance leading up to the final scene, but that final scene is so perfect I no longer mind how we got there.

Ed Howard said...

I loved the Lost premiere as well. It had some flaws — bringing Juliet back for tearful goodbye take 2 felt really unnecessary, for one — but I thought the overall structure was brilliant, especially as the non-crash timeline jolted past the fateful moment and things begin spiraling in unpredictable new directions, all these subtle and not-so-subtle differences revealing what had changed and what might change since the "incident" didn't happen and the plane never crashed. The great thing about Lost, more than any individual plot or moment, is that I'm always curious where things are going to go next, what's going to happen, and what impact it's going to have on all these great characters.

Craig said...

Was hoping you'd weigh in, Ed. I agree that the Juliet scenes could have been compressed. (Maybe the showmeisters just love Liz Mitchell too much to let her go.) In a way, it felt like hackneyed leftovers from last season's finale, which I remember not liking as much as you did. We share the love for this one, though. Like you, I'm eager to see what comes next.