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Movie Reviews

Ulee's Gold  

Despite its title, Ulee`s Gold is not some rehash of The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, but a family drama about a man who protects his family from numerous dangers, and who also learns to accept and forgive those whom he perceives as threats.

The film stars Peter Fonda as Ulee, a beekeeper in rural Florida. As the film begins, Ulee is going through his yearly ritual of collecting the honey harvest. You are given an authentic glimpse of what a beekeeper does, and especially Ulee`s own personal, unique interaction with these small honey producers. It truly does appear as if Peter Fonda had spent all these years hanging around bees.

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But while his beekeeping business is relatively stable, his family life is unravelling. Ulee`s son is currently in prison for armed robbery, so Ulee is up to the challenge of raising his son`s kids, both daughters. However, the eldest daughter, as seems to be the case in these movies, openly defies Ulee`s authority. The younger daughter is far more affectionate, but this is apparent: both feel resentment and abandonment due to the absence of their parents. One day, Ulee is called in by his son to be told that Ulee`s daughter-in-law, a crack addict, has turned up at the son`s ex-robbery partners house. While Ulee does not sound as if he has any real affection for his daughter-in-law, he considers the company she`s staying with to be dangerous. So Ulee takes it upon himself to save her and return her home. What`s interesting is that Ulee has true bitterness over both the son and the daughter-in-law, and therefore could easily say no, yet does all this out of decency and duty. These actions are ultimately risky, notably because, upon Ulee`s arrival, he is forced into a scheme where he must find a large sum of money stashed away by his son during their last bank job. Either that, or his family could be in real danger. It is fascinating to see Ulee`s patience and reserve throughout all of these sequences. Not once does he crack under pressure; instead, a simmering pool of intelligence and judgement.

There is one scene which tears out the root of Ulee`s character, and where he does express hostility. The daughter-in-law is brought home, higher than a space shuttle in orbit, and therefore filled with scattered anger and paranoia. An intense sequence where Ulee and a doctor played by Patricia Richardson try to restrain her turns into a brief shouting match between the drugged woman and Ulee, as she accuses him of destroying every life he touches. Ulee comes back by saying he never did what she did, he was there for the kids, and didn`t waste his life away.

However, we get the impression that Ulee has never attempted to let go of any anger, and to let others see his pain. He calls for his children to not reveal the family problems like someone would dare not reveal he was running from the law. And he, for a time, is disturbed that Richardson has become involved, and that she has told the sheriff about the situation with the daughter-in-law. He doesn`t want his life to be overrun with these invasions, and he cannot accept that underneath their vices, the parents of these children are their parents, and its only right to at least try to bring them back into a decent life again. The test in this film is not whether the money will be found, but whether Ulee will accept the bursting of his private bubble, or attempt to retreat into another one.

The movie sounds as if it`s going to be a thriller - but it isn`t. Much of the story is very much focussed on this family, while the thriller aspect is merely a way to wrap up the plot, and eventually test Ulee`s personal dilemma. I probably wouldn`t have missed the thriller, but the way the movie is constructed is great. Peter Fonda is also interesting. While I haven`t seen very much of his father Henry, I do see the similarities between them. Both of them have an acting style which doesn`t feel like acting, but like real life. They don`t go for anything obviously theatrical.

The film`s American rating is R: a few profanities and very mild violence. Yet in a way, this is more of a "real" family film than those which claim to be. The family here, with the way they talk and the problems they face, certainly can to some degree be understood by real families. There`s nothing exploitive in this material, and the messages are certainly very family friendly. The elder successfully protects his family from numerous dangers, not through cruelty or violence, but by intellegence. And the idea of family ties is very well established, and told with warmth. So, for my definition of wholesome entertainment, Ulee`s Gold certainly fits that catagory.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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