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Discovering 'Ulee's Gold'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 20, 1997

To appreciate "Ulee’s Gold," you have to do a little mining yourself -- just enough to unearth its treasures. In independent movies such as this, where good intentions and offbeat creative instincts meet with modest budgets, there’s a pact between filmmaker and audience. If things are a little slow, ponderous or tentative, the audience helps things along by a collective act of goodwill. When the overall scheme of "Ulee’s Gold" becomes clear, and when Peter Fonda’s lead performance gets up to speed, the film becomes a modest delight.

Writer/director Victor Nunez, who made "Gal Young ’un," is not what you would call a propulsive, breakneck filmmaker. But once you get used to his character-conscious rhythms, his films make perfect sense. "Gold" is about Ulysses Jackson (Fonda), a stolid, taciturn beekeeper in Florida’s tupelo marshes, who finds himself swarmed with family problems. His son, Jimmy (Tom Wood), is doing time for robbery, leaving two children who need looking after. But Jimmy’s junkie of a wife, Helen (Christine Dunford), has run off somewhere, leaving Ulee with granddaughters Penny (Vanessa Zima) and Casey (Jessica Biel).

Then Ulee gets a call from Jimmy that changes everything. It seems Helen has gotten herself into deep trouble with Jimmy’s oldtime crime partners, Eddie Flowers (Steven Flynn) and Ferris Dooley (Dewey Weber). Someone needs to pick her up and bring her home. Ulee, who has no time for any of these irresponsible lowlifes, reluctantly honors Jimmy’s wishes.

But when he meets with Eddie and Ferris, things are more complicated than he could have ever guessed. The boys have learned -- from the drug-addicted Helen -- that there was a little money left over after Jimmy’s robbery attempt. Jimmy kept that secret to himself. The boys feel that maybe Jimmy ought to have mentioned something. Now, Ulee has to deal with a junkie who doesn’t even want to see her daughters, as well as two greedy good ol’ boys who intend to harm his family if they don’t get the money.

Ulee is haunted by his experiences in Vietnam (he’s the only survivor among his immediate unit), his wife’s death and this dysfunctional family. But when he decides to take charge, well, how do you spell redemption?

It’s a rather simplistic formula; and there’s a whole subplot about Ulee’s beekeeping that doesn’t do much more than give our reluctant hero an interesting, solitary job. But Fonda, best known for his pop-cultural role in "Easy Rider," has found a role that’s more than just a cool bike ride.

As Ulee, he’s a convincing, stalwart straight-shooter who (in the cosmic laws of this film) is protected by his integrity. He isn’t going to beat his armed, psychotic opponents, so much as outlast them. And with his intriguingly aged features, and a slow verbal delivery, he bears an uncanny resemblance to his famous father, Henry. Luckily, he’s surrounded by solid performers, particularly Dunford as the troubled Helen, and Flynn as Eddie Flowers, a man who hides his petty, malevolent agenda under a veil of perfect politeness.

In Nunez’s films, it’s the characters -- not the events -- that take us through to the other side. And in "Ulee’s Gold," there are people to watch and enjoy.

ULEE’S GOLD (R) — Contains profanity and some violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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