Jolene -- Film Review

Fine cast takes a walk on the wild side.

E.L. Doctorow's novels have never been translated entirely successfully to the screen, though Sidney Lumet's "Daniel," Robert Benton's "Billy Bathgate" and even Burt Kennedy's "Welcome to Hard Times" all have their merits. (The most high-profile Doctorow adaptation, Milos Forman's film of "Ragtime," is probably the worst of the lot.)

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.

Since there isn't a strong narrative to link her disparate adventures, the success of the film grows from the vividness of individual scenes and performances. Ireland has demonstrated a gift for casting in the past: He helped launch the careers of Renee Zellweger (in The Whole Wide World), Thomas Jane (in The Velocity of Gary) and Rupert Friend (as Joan Plowright's co-star in Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont). Ireland has another find in Jessica Chastain, a striking redhead who can seem simultaneously childlike and womanly, vulnerable and hard-edged; even when she's embroiled in the most sordid encounters, she always retains our sympathy.

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.