Junebug (Sony Pictures Classics) has been bugging me. I’ve seen it twice and have been laboring to make total sense of it, but it has more layers and disjunctions than I can keep track of, and I’m prepared to throw up my hands and say: It’s hugely entertaining, it’s spectacularly acted, and it pricks you in all kinds of places. Maybe the best thing is to see it and let it bug you, too.
It’s a culture-clash quasi-comedy that could have been “QUIRKY” and “OFFBEAT,” but is directed, by Phil Morrison, in the least self-consciously quirky manner imaginable. The movie has a haunted spaciousness. The script is by Angus MacLachlan, who’s also a playwright, with a playwright’s love of intricate symbolism. You could definitely get a term paper out of this one, kids. There are deft echoes of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and Sam Shepard’s BuriedChild, which both hinge on a prodigal son’s return with a new wife and the psychosexual feeling that bubbles up from the family sub-basement.
The setting is rural North Carolina, the childhood home of George (Alessandro Nivola). I’m not sure what George does—in some ways he’s a handsome blank. What we know is that he left for Chicago and married, after a whirlwind courtship, a worldly, ambitious, and gorgeous gallery owner, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), who has staked her gallery’s identity on “outsider” art.
That brings her and George to an extremely strange North Carolina painter called David Wark (I can’t begin to characterize his semiautistic affect and subterranean rage) played by Frank Hoyt Taylor. (You’ll think this guy, with his affectless dialect, is a found object, but Taylor is merely an accomplished actor.) The painter does big, bloody, Goyaesque (or “Guernica”-esque) Civil War canvases. He also happens to live close to George’s family, whom Madeleine has never met.
She gets off on the wrong foot by calling George’s mother, Peg, Pat, but Peg—played with scary intensity by Celia Weston—would have hated her anyway for keeping George away from home. At the opposite extreme is George’s younger and less intellectual brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie, from The O.C.), who measures himself constantly against George and would rather he never come home. The seething, taciturn Johnny can’t even bear to be in the same room as his brother.
Junebug’s most vivid character—its emotional center—is Johnny’s very pregnant wife, Ashley (Amy Adams). Before Madeleine even arrives, Ashley knows her brother’s wife will be thinner and more beautiful than she is. She’s so threatened that she does one of those fascinating psychological flip-flops: She develops a huge sisterly crush on Madeleine. (“I love her!”)
Adams was luminous as the gullible Southern would-be bride of con man Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can, but nothing could prepare you for her performance here—blurty, hilarious, heartbreaking. She chatters to fill the silence, and her words double back on themselves and spin out into crazy tangents. She thinks aloud about drinking poisonous nail polish in Madeleine’s presence. She’s so mixed-up and self-hating that she even seems to offer Madeleine her husband, who doesn’t want the baby and has stopped being affectionate toward her.
Junebug has a scheme that’s a little creepy, perhaps (perhaps) misogynistic. Is the city sophisticate Madeleine the movie’s protagonist or villain? Or both? She’s obviously a destabilizing force. She’s madly flirtatious with George’s brother and father (Scott Wilson), a kind, humble, barely articulate part-time carpenter who prefers his lonely basement workshop. She has frequent and audible sex in the future baby’s nursery—which in the context of the movie is vaguely demonic. She preys voraciously on this Southern culture without beginning to understand it. (Listen to her chatter away about the scrotums in David Wark’s paintings.) In the script’s most heavy-handed touch, she’s forced to make a moral choice between pursuing her private ambition and going to the hospital to stand by her sister-in-law, who’s giving birth. It shouldn’t be an either/or issue, but here it has momentous weight—too much weight.
Although Madeleine stands for all that’s chaotic and shallow, you can’t hate her. Junebug is too nuanced, and the willowy Davidtz has too much buoyancy and soul to pass for a demon. Madeleine’s actions are instinctive and unconscious—like everyone else’s in this movie. (Writer MacLachlan is a Chekhovian, too—there are hints of Uncle Vanya in the movie’s treatment of Madeleine’s destructiveness and her relationship with Ashley.)
And what’s the deal: Is she liberating George from this culture or helping to sever him from his vital roots? It depends on your perspective. In a stunning scene, Madeleine watches George sing a hymn—sublimely—at a church supper. The refrain is, “Come home, come home,” and George’s mother Peg nods along with it. But is the uncompromising faith in which George has been raised a prison? Junebug takes no clear stand. It does, however, include another side of the South in the canvases of that backwoods painter David Wark. (Is the name meant to invoke the director of Birth of a Nation? It could hardly be coincidence!) Intensely religious, the works are also full of brutal, racist imagery and redolent of sexual envy. There’s a fury toward the North and its big cities that is woven into the social fabric of this place.
Director Morrison adds his own motifs, and they’re not always in sync with the well-carpentered script. (That’s a good thing—it opens the movie up.) The editing is quick and arrhythmic, the score (by Yo La Tengo) eerily restrained. Sometimes the sound drops away, the dialogue stops, and we get images of the clean, tasteful family home and the cared-for landscapes. Yet the plainness of this Southern setting is deeply mysterious. Underneath the order and hospitality is … what? I have issues with Junebug, but a movie this rich and tantalizing is a rare gift. … 3:38 p.m. PT