Jump-cutting and free-associating to its heart’s content, film lands two-bit criminal Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) in God-forsaken Superior, Ariz., with an overheated engine. Leaving his old red Mustang convertible with malevolently impudent garage mechanic Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton, hilariously rendering the definitive take on white trash), Bobby bops through downtown, where he succeeds in picking up Grace (Jennifer Lopez), a looker in a tight red dress who invites the drifter up to her well-appointed home.
Some heavy flirtation has just led to first base when who should walk in but Grace’s gruff husband, Jake (Nick Nolte), who promptly decks the transgressor and kicks him out of his house. Moments later, however, Jake picks the bloodied Bobby up on the road and asks him if he’d care to murder his wife for a price.
Bobby may be a lawbreaker at times, but he’s never killed anyone and gives Jake the brush-off. However, when his bag containing thousands in cash, which he owes to a Russian criminal who clipped off two of his fingers, is blown to bits in an attempted robbery, Bobby is forced to go back to Jake and accept his offer.
In an edgy, high-wire sequence above a deep ravine, Bobby doesn’t know until the last second whether he’s going to push Grace over the side or ravish her. Choosing the latter, and learning a few things about the woman’s tormented past in the process, Bobby soon becomes Grace’s willing accomplice in turning the tables and doing in the beastly Jake, whose private stash of $200,000 would come in handy in setting the pair up in a new life.
Attempting the deed, however, is a difficult and grisly matter, one complicated for Bobby by continuing hassles with the grotesque Darrell and local sheriff Potter (Powers Boothe), the badgering of a wise-ass “blind Indian” (Jon Voight) and repeated assaults by town tough-guy Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix), who imagines that Bobby is trying to make time with his tarty girlfriend (Claire Danes).
The climax truly hits “Duel in the Sun” pay dirt, with the surviving characters writhing around on the rocks in the presence of a couple of corpses while birds of prey hover expectantly.
The stylistic fun Stone has in dramatizing this crime of passion thoroughly revitalizes the well-worked genre. The piling on of coincidental adversity, humorous non sequitur inserts and jaunty, goofy music clearly positions Penn’s Bobby as a poor schmuck caught both comically and cosmically in a web of circumstance beyond his control. The underlining of the story’s elemental aspects, such as the frequent allusions to animals and base instincts, is also humorous and legitimately threatening.
The raw edge and incessant experimentation in the direction often puts one in mind of the exciting work done by new and contrary young filmmakers of the late ’60s, and could easily be mistaken for the work of an adventurous artist making his first or second film. Certainly few, if any, directors with as many films under their belts as Stone has is displaying this kind of stylistic urgency and restlessness, without the slightest speck of Hollywood complacency in evidence.
In addition to the accomplished daring of Robert Richardson’s ever-observant, sometimes whipping camerawork and Ennio Morricone’s half-comic, half-haunting score, which in its eccentric instrumentation is reminiscent of his great scores for Sergio Leone, there are enormous pleasures to be taken from the performances. Penn is outstanding as the beleaguered hero, the resourcefulness and quick-trigger aspects of his personality neatly fitting the needs of his often-cornered character. Lopez makes an ideal and yet somewhat uncommon femme fatale, an abused woman who manages to dish out quite a bit of abuse of her own before it’s all over; she also nicely accommodates the film’s late-in-the-game shift in its emotional center to Grace.
Grizzled, gravelly-voiced and seemingly outfitted with some rabbitlike buck teeth, Nolte gives a nasty performance of which the late Lee Marvin would have been rightly proud. Thornton is an outrageous delight, Voight has fun with his insolent sidewalk philosopher, and Phoenix brings slick gusto to his transparently thin-skinned bully.