mon 30/03/2020

Justified, Five USA | reviews, news & interviews

Justified, Five USA

Justified, Five USA

At last Elmore Leonard is well served on screen

Elmore Leonard’s authorial voice has proved elusive to those trying to replicate it on screen – not least to Leonard himself. Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 Get Shorty was an honourable exception, but mostly his deeply satisfying humour is lost in translation. Or it’s over-played. Not so with FX’s Justified (showing here on Five USA), which has been loosely adapted from three Leonard stories featuring US Marshal Raylan Givens. Leonard may be executive producer here, but he’s not one to lavish praise lightly. He judges the dialogue in Justified to be “really perfect”, and you won’t find me disagreeing.

The other thing going on, apart from the sterling work in the writing room, is the charismatic Timothy Olyphant as Givens. Formerly Deadwood’s upright Sheriff Seth Bullock, Olyphant is effortlessly cool - José Mourinho in a Stetson - the sort of laid-back and laconic hero we haven’t seen since Jim Rockford. And if Justified seems out of sync with more morally ambiguous modern cop noirs such as The Shield and The Wire, it’s not because it’s a bit of throwback to The Rockford Files or Magnum, P I - it’s a lot darker and funnier than either of those.

The truth is that Justified is actually more of a western. This is a world where lawmen wear big hats, sit with their boots on their desk, shoot first and brood later - a habit that got Givens posted from Miami back to his native eastern Kentucky in the first place. And Harlan County is rural mining country populated entirely by white supremacists, or at least that was the impression given by last week’s opening episode.

Last night’s second episode hooked up with a few of the narrative threads from that opener, with Givens visiting the ex-mining buddy turned church-zapping neo-Nazi, Boyd, in the Federal Detention Centre in Lexington (Boyd claimed to have found the Lord thanks to Givens shooting him in the chest - an announcement that had Givens looking duly sceptical). The main business this week involved a brace of escaped prisoners - the bass player and drummer in a bluegrass convict band called The Big House Boys. Why has one of them gone on the run with only three months left of a 15-year sentence? Well, it turned out that his “one-time exotic dancer” ex-wife and her new boyfriend/relation (“it ain’t like we’re first cousins”) are trying to locate the loot that the fugitive jailbird had hidden beneath the floorboards of a house under construction all those years ago.

This is the sort of hard-boiled humour that American thriller writers like Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich excel at. The dialogue crackled from start to finish, from Givens’ line to the husband-slaying Ava, who had sneaked into his motel room - “Do you know why the Pentecostals don’t have sex standing up? It could lead to dancing” - to his tart exchange with ex-love Winona, after she had come to complain about Givens letting himself into her house. “I hear you got jumped by an old convict?” she riled. “Does 55 still seem old to you?”, he retorted.

There’s more to Justified than smart lines - or what seems like a useful, if largely unknown (to me) cast. The whole Bluegrass State milieu (albeit mostly filmed in California) is fresh, and isn’t patronisingly portrayed. That doesn’t mean that show-runner Graham Yost and his writers don’t have fun with the dumber type of hillbilly - usually the ones wearing swastikas. This is an America we’re seeing more of thanks to cable drama and comedy - think the vampire-ridden bayou of True Blood (another FX show), the Rust Belt setting of Hung, or the North Carolina trailer parks of Eastbound & Down - and I fully intend to revisit Harlan County on a regular basis. Hell, it’s worth it for the soundtrack alone, and although I’ve trawled the net I can’t find a listing for it anywhere. Any pointers gratefully received.

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If you are interested in the setting, it's very much worth checking out Harlan County USA, directed by Barbara Kopple, who has won two Oscars, including one for that film.

it's very much worth checking out Harlan County USA, directed by Barbara Kopple, who has won two Oscars, including one for that film.

Leonard may be executive producer here, but he’s not one to lavish praise lightly. He judges the dialogue in Justified to be “really perfect”, and you won’t find me disagreeing.

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