×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘In Dubious Battle’

James Franco directs a story of the 1930s labor movement that (for once) is more than a labor of love. Adapted from John Steinbeck, it's Franco's first watchable dramatic feature.

With:
James Franco, Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Josh Hutcherson, John Savage, Ashley Greene, Bryan Cranston.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4411618/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'In Dubious Battle'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival, Sept. 2, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 114 MIN.

Production: An AMBI Distribution release of Rabbit Bandini, That’s Hollywood Pictures production. Producers: Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi, Vince Jolivette, Scott Reed.

Crew: Director: James Franco. Screenplay: Matt Rager. Camera (color, widescreen): Bruce Thierry Cheung. Editor: Gary Roach.

With: James Franco, Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Josh Hutcherson, John Savage, Ashley Greene, Bryan Cranston.

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Virginia Leith, Female Lead in Stanley Kubrick's First Film, Dies at 94

    Actress and model Virginia Leith, who starred in Stanley Kubrick’s first film “Fear and Desire,” which he later disavowed, has died. She was 94. According to family spokesperson Jane Chalmers, Leith died after a brief illness at her home in Palm Springs, Calif. on Nov. 4. Born on Oct. 15, 1925, Leith met Kubrick in [...]

  • Sarah Bolger's 'A Good Woman Is

    Film News Roundup: Sarah Bolger's 'A Good Woman Is Hard to Find' Bought by Film Movement

    In today’s film news roundup, “A Good Woman Is Hard to Find” and “After Parkland” find homes, Jack Johnson is honored, AGC closes deals on Neill Blomkamp’s latest and Paramount is in talks for a “Power to the People” project. ACQUISITIONS Film Movement has bought North American rights to the thriller “A Good Woman Is [...]

  • Sir Lionel Frost (left) voiced by

    Chris Butler Looks At The Magic Behind Animating 'Missing Link'

    Laika’s latest feature “Missing Link” raises the bar once again for the world of stop-motion, pushing boundaries in scope and visuals. The story of an unlikely friendship between Mr. Frost and his 8-foot yeti buddy Link is one of hope. “Missing Link” producer Arianne Sutner says the message of the film was to “leave people [...]

  • Jonah Hauer-King Prince Eric

    'Little Mermaid' Live-Action Movie Finds Its Prince Eric

    Jonah Hauer-King will soon be a part of the “Little Mermaid” world. The newcomer has been tapped to play Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action remake of the animated classic. At one point, Harry Styles was is in early talks for the role, but ended up passing. Hauer-King has had two screen tests, with the most [...]

  • Peter Caranicas

    Variety's Peter Caranicas to Receive 1st HPA Legacy Award

    Peter Caranicas Variety managing editor, features, will be honored with the first HPA Legacy Award. Caranicas joined Variety as features managing editor in 2008, and currently serves as both deputy editor and managing editor, features. He has developed the editorial franchises Dealmakers Impact Report, Hollywood’s New Leaders, Legal Impact Report and Business Managers Elite. Caranicas also [...]

  • Jack Ryan

    Richard Rutkowski on ‘Jack Ryan,’ Costa-Gavras and Being Nice Abroad

    TORUN, Poland – Speaking at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival on Monday, Richard Rutkowski praised the work of Costa-Gavras, offered sage advice for filmmakers working internationally, and offered a glimpse of the fast-paced work faced by cinematographers on high-profile TV series. Rutkowski, whose credits include “Jack Ryan,” “Castle Rock” and “The Americans,” discussed the methods, [...]

  • 'Honeyland' DP on Low-Fi Shooting With

    'Honeyland' DP on Low-Fi Shooting With High-Powered Storytelling

    Filming the Sundance-awarded “Honeyland” in a remote North Macedonia locale without roads or electricity, it was easy to get lost, confesses cinematographer Fejmi Daut. “It was too hard to decide what would be the storyline in the beginning,” said the debut DP, speaking at the 27th EnergaCamerimage cinematography festival in Torun, Poland. The editing process [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content