A gem of rare emotional depth and integrity, "Ulee's Gold" is the cinematic equivalent of a wonderful old backwater town, a community bypassed by the interstate of the mainstream American film industry that possesses virtues and knowledge that travelers in the fast lane never stop to appreciate.

A gem of rare emotional depth and integrity, “Ulee’s Gold” is the cinematic equivalent of a wonderful old backwater town, a community bypassed by the interstate of the mainstream American film industry that possesses virtues and knowledge that travelers in the fast lane never stop to appreciate. Graced by a completely unexpected performance from Peter Fonda that is by far the best of his career, Victor Nunez’s richly realized drama about a man re-awakening to his family responsibilities has all the commercial liabilities of a small film without major stars or other obvious selling points. But Orion Classics could have a shot at a sleeper if it can combine likely strong reviews with smart release positioning to allow the picture to settle in and give an audience the time to discover it.

Working, as always, in Florida and with the same deliberate, character-oriented approach that proved so rewarding with his last outing, “Ruby in Paradise,” four years ago, Nunez this time ups the dramatic ante somewhat by intro-ducing a good-versus-evil plot element that generates some honest suspense. The characters remain the focus of the writer-director’s concern, but the melodrama propelling the action gives the film some urgency that is welcome and not unduly contrived.

In bare-bones description, premise is nothing that will set pulses running. Ulysses “Ulee” Jackson (Fonda) is a middle-aged Vietnam vet living modestly in a rural area of the Florida panhandle. Over time, it becomes clear that, devastated by the death of his wife six years before and the further disintegration of his family, cued by the long-term imprisonment of his son Jimmy (Tom Wood), Ulee has retreated from emotional engagement, putting most of his attention into his work as a beekeeper and the production of a high-grade honey.

But since his daughter-in-law Helen (Christine Dunford) has disappeared, Ulee is obliged to look after his two granddaughters, teenaged Casey (Jessica Biel) and the younger Penny (Vanessa Zima). Their quiet, mundane lives suddenly change, however, when Jimmy asks his father to go fetch Helen, who has turned up in Orlando. Ulee obligingly makes the trip, and is confronted with two low-rent criminals (Steven Flynn and Dewey Weber), who happily turn over the drugged-out Helen but then demand, at gunpoint, that Ulee produce the $100,000 they have just discovered that Jimmy, their former partner, has hidden from them.

The week that follows is difficult and dramatic. When Helen awakes from her stupor, she goes into heavy physical and emotional withdrawal and needs to be restrained and watched at all times. The daughters react warily to their hysterical mother’s return, although crisis moments are helpfully alleviated by the intervention of a new neighbor, nurse Connie (Patricia Richardson).

It is also the peak of Ulee’s work season, and unusual attention is paid to the details and sheer ordeal involved in the transformation of hive honey into a consumer product. As Ulee does it in his old-fashioned way, it is hard and solitary labor, making him a distinctly endangered species, and Nunez uses the job as a low-key but effective meta-phor for the type of independent spirit and commitment to enduring ways that are now quickly passing from the scene.

Barely sleeping due to all the work and suddenly feeling his age, Ulee still manages to establish the location of the money, which he fully intends to hand over to his nemeses. But the impatient thugs turn up at his home, gag and bind the women and force Ulee to lead them to the stash at once, generating a genuinely breath-shortening episode that one rightly suspects will not be solved with conventional movie heroics.

Gravitating seemingly by nature to human truths and respecting the reality of experience rather than the expedi-encies of Hollywood-style plotting, Nunez achieves a rare, and rarely earned, emotional depth that rewards the moderate demands he makes on contemporary viewers’ short attention spans. Some may find the pace somewhat pokey, the style on the prosaic side and the whole atmosphere a bit too down-home, but Nunez’s focus on the es-sentials among life’s priorities — family, work and honorable values — is ennobling and enriching without being sticky or sanctimonious. With one gesture at a key moment, when Ulee kicks a gun irretrievably into a swamp, Nunez effectively sums up his entire attitude toward the conventions and preoccupations of today’s cinema.

Since Peter Fonda had never been asked to give, and certainly had never delivered, an ambitious three-dimensional performance before, it must have taken courage on Nunez’s part to entrust him with this role. But Fonda has re-sponded splendidly, with work that is reserved yet revealing, withholding but ultimately quite moving. With his cold eyes, erect stature, taciturn manner and deliberate vocal cadences, it is impossible not to compare the actor here to his late father, and there may even be an element of portraiture going on, with the son reproducing aspects of the way he remembers his own father behaving toward him. There are also intonations in Fonda’s turn that re-mind strongly of Clint Eastwood, but none of this takes away from this singular achievement Peter Fonda has managed after 35 years on the screen.

While the central figure dominates the proceedings, the other thesps do well in the same emotionally truthful vein. Production values are average, but pic benefits from the distinctive atmosphere created by the northern and central Florida settings.

Ulee's Gold

Production

An Orion Classics release of a Jonathan Demme presentation of a Nunez-Gowan/Clinica Estetico production. Pro-duced, directed, written by Victor Nunez. Executive producers, Edward Saxon, John Sloss, Valerie Thomas. Co-producers, Sam Gowan, Peter Saraf.

Crew

Camera (Duart color), Virgil Marcus Mirano; music, Charles Engstrom; mu-sic supervisor, Alex Steyermark; production design, Robert "Pat" Garner; art direction, Debbie Devilla; set decora-tion, Charles Kulsziski; costume design, Marilyn Wall-Asse; sound design (Dolby), Pete Winter; line producer, Stewart Lippe; assistant director, Gus Holzer; casting, Judy Courtney. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premiere), Jan. 22, 1997. Running time: 111 min.

With

Ulee Jackson - Peter Fonda Connie Hope - Patricia Richardson Casey Jackson - Jessica Biel Sheriff Bill Floyd - J. Kenneth Campbell Helen Jackson - Christine Dunford Eddie Flowers - Steven Flynn Ferris Dooley - Dewey Weber Jimmy Jackson - Tom Wood Penny Jackson - Vanessa Zima
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