This black-hearted, desert-scorched suspense piece is Oliver Stone's best movie for years. He's finally freed himself from the heavy-handed, political polemicising that has shackled his directorial efforts since his debut, The Hand. With U-Turn, Stone leaps headfirst into David Lynch country - the evil, festering arse-end of small-town America - and delivers two hours of supremely nasty doom-laden film noir entertainment.
This picture was shot in 42 days, for a bargain-basement $20 million, and is pumped full of Stone's ever-bombastic cine-wizardry, broadening out a labyrinthine script with the same multi-film stock, editing-suite trickery that made Natural Born Killers such an empty box of tricks. This time around, the twisted script and flashy visuals match each other perfectly, painting a dazzling turbo-charged portrait of one scumbag's battle with the forces of evil.
Not one resident of Superior is worth a good goddamn, as outlined by writer John Ridley (adapting his own novel Stray Dogs). Bobby Cooper (who's already lost a couple of fingers to some Russian mobsters) may be the worst kind of sell-your-own-grandmother jerk, but he's small change compared with the Arizona sociopaths who drag him further toward the brink of self-destruction. His baser instincts are increasingly tempted by a procession of rural crazies: sneaky, cackling mechanics; shotgun-toting grandmas; love- struck delinquents; and Satanic local businessmen.
Stone kicks his film into high gear with Cooper's disorientating arrival in Superior, detailing the smart-arsed city boy's unsettling bout of verbal one-upmanship with skank-toothed local mechanic Darrell (a sweat-soaked super-hick performance from Billy Bob Thornton). Upping the ante after Nolte and Lopez's arrival, a spectacularly gruesome convenience-store robbery destroys Cooper's hard-won fortune.
Twist after twist follow when each member of the double-crossing couple ask the financially needy out-of-towner to knock off the other, leading to a carnage-strewn final third, which takes the style of classic film noir and whirls it through a gore-drenched blender.
Runty, self-obsessed Cooper is ideal casting for the ever more rat-like Penn, while the other leads, squashed by the cancerous underbelly of the American dream, represent various facets of madness and despair. Jennifer Lopez excels as the adulterous Grace - the first '90s femme fatale to truly match up to the '40s archetype; Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix contribute a pair of amped-up cameos as the trailer-trash kids in love; while Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe (who were previously teamed in Walter Hill's Extreme Prejudice) vie for position as U-Turn's premier villainous crackpot.
Nolte may have the more showy role as the growling, buck-toothed McKenna, but the chilling nutcase honours ultimately fall to the ever-imposing Boothe - the tough cop who's finally revealed as a sexually enslaved, eyeball-popping Tex Avery loon-with-gun.
Veteran Stone cinematographer Bob Richardson takes his trademark restless camerawork to new heights and creates a masterpiece of visual havoc-by-design. He rounds out the actors' characterisations with jarring behind-the-scenes cutaway shots, imparting a breathless merry-go-round feel to the finished film.
Stone's hyperbolic style is ideally suited to this absurdly melodramatic, darkly humorous material: U-Turn's sun-drenched Arizona streets may shine brightly with the desert sun, but they're seething with dark passion.