It’s easy to mock James Franco for the polymath showiness of all his extracurricular endeavors (actor! filmmaker! poet! collector of academic degrees! the world’s first and last postmodern Oscar host!). Yet if you leave the snark aside, there is something half-crazy/admirable about the scale of his ambitions. Besides, it’s no easy task to pull together a feature film, and Franco has directed close to a dozen of them. Up until now, he hasn’t been very good at it. Whether it’s a sexually “transgressive” (but actually cautious) documentary curio like “Interior. Leather Bar.” or one of his two (count ’em) Faulkner adaptations, Franco as a filmmaker has been more diligent than competent. At Cannes in 2013, as the audience sat dying through Franco’s “As I Lay Dying,” I tried to relieve the tedium by glancing to my left, and saw that half the people there were asleep.
But “In Dubious Battle,” Franco’s adaptation of a 1936 John Steinbeck novel, brings surprising good news: He is getting better! Seriously. It was clear, from the earthy, tin-shack period atmosphere of his Faulkner films (the best thing about them), that Franco is drawn to the rural Americana of an earlier era. Now, dramatizing Steinbeck’s docu-fiction about a labor strike carried out by fruit pickers in California in the early ’30s, he re-creates the grimy hopelessness of the Depression — the ragtag clothes and hungry stares, the migrant desperation of people who literally don’t have a pot to piss in — in a way that’s authentic and immersive. Of course, a movie can only thrive for about five minutes on vivid period atmosphere alone, and that’s why “In Dubious Battle” is a breakthrough. For the first time, Franco pulls the drama together too — or, at least, he does it well enough to come up with his own scrappy, understated version of a Hollywood liberal rabble-rouser.
“In Dubious Battle” is about something much bigger than one strike. It shows the formation of the American labor movement from the ground up, back in the days when to go on strike was to take your life in your hands, to risk starvation or getting your head bashed in. Franco plays Mac, a devoted member of “The Party” (Steinbeck’s gloss on the American Communist Party or the International Workers of the World). In his case, it’s all about fighting for the basic rights of people who don’t have them. Along with a new recruit, the tall, boyish Jim (Nat Wolff), he travels up to orchard country to infiltrate the workers and orchestrate a strike from the inside.
The Depression, of course, has left everyone high and dry, but those at the top, like Bolton (Robert Duvall), the smug patriarchal owner of Bolton Orchards, seem to be getting through just fine. (Any subtextual commentary on the economic inequalities of America today is purely intentional.) Early on, Bolton stands up in front of his apple pickers and squabbles with them about the wages he can afford to pay them. The rate he’s offering is a dollar a day, but that’s not enough to live on (even in 1933), and the workers, led by the burly, righteous London (Vincent D’Onofrio), are demanding that he own up to his promise to pay them three dollars a day. Bolton won’t relent, and Duvall, that sly dog who loves to find the human side of corrupt men, shows you that Bolton — representing the aristocratic classes of the time — truly does view his workers as dogs. He’s blind to their suffering, but more than that, he thinks this is their lot in life. That’s a mindset you can’t argue with.
At first, the workers want nothing to do with Mac and what they see as his pie-in-the-sky idealism. For them, fighting the status quo is a dangerous lose-lose. But Mac, whom Franco plays with a wiliness of his own, sees that they’re a tinderbox, full of anger that’s just waiting to be lit. They finally agree to a tentative work stoppage, but that’s merely the opening act. Bolton brings in a trainload of scabs, and it’s here that the situation ignites: Mac’s old Party colleague, a broken-down but still fiery curmudgeon played by Ed Harris, gets up and makes a speech about basic rights and what they really are, a speech that Harris delivers with ornery conviction. The speech is so effective that a company sniper shoots and kills him on the spot. That becomes just the recruitment tool that Mac needs.
Franco has filled his cast with seasoned actors who, like Harris, fit the period setting snugly, and each one makes an impression. D’Onofrio, who is now 57, has settled into a blustery white-bearded middle age, and he plays London, who becomes the workers’ spokesman, as an ordinary man who knows that he wasn’t put on earth to lead a revolt, which makes his stabs at doing so all the more affecting. Sam Shepard plays a rival farmer who agrees to house the workers in tents on his land (once they’re banned from the Bolton estate), in exchange for their picking his crop for free. Shepard, who has always looked like he came from the ’30s, makes this farmer a compelling contradiction, a hard case with a soft spot.
At its center, though, where the movie should seethe with passion, it sags a bit. Franco has made a film about an uprising that’s much more convincing than, say, “Free State of Jones.” “In Dubious Battle” shows you the nuts and bolts of how the labor movement was built, one strike and threat and dead body at a time. The strike breakers will stoop to anything — at one point, Bolton’s adult daughter, who’s being groomed to take over his land, leads a worker away from Shepard’s apple barn by having sex with him, so that her goons can set the barn ablaze. Yet the story of Mac and Joe, the workers’ party advocates who are making all this happen, never really ignites. As a director, Franco has learned how to stage a scene, but he and his screenwriter, Matt Rager, don’t build layers into the action. The movie gives us bits and pieces of drama, but in a larger way it doesn’t invite us in.
Yet “In Dubious Battle” has to be acknowledged as a major growth ring in Le Cinéma de Franco. He has learned by doing, and he has acquired skills that are beginning to fuse with the best side of his instincts, which is to look at subjects with a candor that mainstream movies too often avoid. “In Dubious Battle” isn’t a totally clear-cut good movie, but it’s a scrupulous and watchable one. And it makes me think, for the first time, that James Franco has a good movie in him.