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Short stories of a gifted writer often make more effective movies than densely layered novels, and perhaps that’s why Jolene, based on a 30-page story, works neatly onscreen. The only limitations of the film — adapted by Dennis Yares and directed by Dan Ireland — stem from the episodic nature of the original story. The film is seeking distribution, and while it won’t set the boxoffice on fire, it deserves attention for its performances.
Doctorow’s Jolene: A Life follows the exploits of an unfortunate but resilient young woman over a 10-year period as she wanders across the country. She begins as the 15-year-old bride of a Southern hick, lands in a reformatory, then endures more failed relationships before she ends up in Hollywood, looking a lot older than 25 but still dreaming of brighter prospects.
Ireland has surrounded the star with a superb supporting cast. Dermot Mulroney and Theresa Russell as the trailer-trash aunt and uncle of Jolene’s young husband tear into their roles lustily. Perhaps the most memorable vignette takes place in prison, where Frances Fisher gives a heartrending performance as a repressed guard who falls helplessly in love with Jolene. Rupert Friend turns up in an amusing role as a tattoo artist, and Chazz Palminteri is engaging as a Las Vegas mobster in the episode that seems the most expendable. Finally, Jolene hooks up with a rich, right-wing sadist, played with sinister skill by Michael Vartan.
The film is technically accomplished, with excellent widescreen cinematography by Claudio Rocha and a haunting score by Harry Gregson-Williams. It would, however, benefit from some careful pruning. This picaresque tale dawdles a bit, but Chastain keeps us rooting for Jolene’s survival.
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