Film Review: Strange Weather

Cliché-ridden melodrama about a Southern woman out for revenge against the man she believes was responsible for her son’s suicide seven years earlier.
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You don’t have to like a character, but if you’re going to spend 90 minutes with a protagonist, he/she had better be interesting. The problem with Darcy (Holly Hunter) in Katherine Dieckmann's Strange Weather, about a Southern woman who tracks down the man she believes is responsible for her son's suicide, is that she’s just plain dull, her severe narcissism notwithstanding. Neurosis in and of itself does not great drama make.

The mishmash of genres and themes, all awash in tropes and clichés, doesn’t help—from its road trip-quest-confrontation-healing-redemption structure to its social commentary on backwoods poverty (in communities afflicted with floods and droughts) to its feminist depiction of women empowered through bonding. And to top it all off, the defining motif is unresolved and protracted grief. That’s one hot topic now.

There are other trendy touches. Our heroine’s best friend Byrd (Carrie Coon) is deeply in love with an African-American woman (Andrene Ward-Hammond), and Darcy’s abusive ex-husband (Johnny McPhail) is speechless, paralyzed and wheelchair-confined. All the PC boxes have been checked: lesbian interracial romance, check; disabled, dependent ex-spouse (probably suffering from some form of dementia, maybe even Alzheimer’s), check.

And then there’s our lead’s “quirkiness”—a signpost of many indie films—intended to evoke depth of character and charm. Darcy’s particular idiosyncrasy is planting and watering shrubbery in the middle of the night. She’s also a Stetson-sporting, heavy-smoking, tough talking, fifty-something, underpaid administrative assistant in a Georgia-based rural university who drives around in a battered old pickup truck.

Quite by accident, she discovers on the university’s fund-raising database that Mark Wright (Shane Jacobsen), a former pal of Darcy's late son (who committed suicide seven years earlier) is now the successful owner of a chain of hot-dog eateries near New Orleans. Darcy soon realizes that Mark’s restaurant franchise is strikingly similar to an idea her son had, triggering a host of emotions (rage, jealousy, guilt) and a new personal mission: to go after and accost Wright, though it’s never entirely clear what she hopes to achieve. Does she want Mark to fess up to intellectual thievery (such as it is) or is it a payoff she’s after? Or does she have her sights set on some other form of revenge? Oh, did I mention she has a gun?

The story makes no sense. Nonetheless, with Byrd in tow she drives off to find Mark, the two women traveling through the bleaker landscapes of Southern Americana with its shack-dwelling and homeless forgotten people (all of whom we’ve met in other films). Along the way they spend the night with Darcy's childhood friend Mary Lou (the late Glenne Headly), a no-nonsense good old gal with whom Darcy happily relives the past. The section is nicely acted—and all the more poignant in light of Headly’s recent death—but it’s intrusive. It has nothing to do with anything.

Later in the journey, Byrd reveals a deep dark secret to Darcy that’s equally nonsensical, if not more so. Suffice it to say there’s no reason for her to be sharing this confidence at all and even less justification for Darcy’s over-the-top reaction to it.

Obviously, these scenes are designed to give the story context and flesh out character, but they simply feel tacked on. Even the preposterous and wildly overrated Thelma & Louise (which Dieckmann cites as an influence) is focused, with a definable through-line.

Dramatizing redneck life is challenging from the get-go, not least because there’s so much of it out there onscreen (small and large), onstage and in fiction. Avoiding repetition, let alone finding something original to say is no easy feat while straddling the tightrope between credibility on the one side and interest/entertainment on the other.

Showtime’s“Shameless” pulls it off brilliantly, using the dysfunctional Gallagher family—Chicago-based but redneck to the core—and its fetid surroundings to forge a vision that is at once anarchistic and nihilistic. Similarly, Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s film, transforms her Ozark-based setting and downtrodden yokels to tell a primal and mythic story, while Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, deeply rooted in realism, was a stunning eye-opener introducing audiences to a segment of society living in extreme poverty at the border between New York and Canada. We had never seen these characters onscreen before. Like Strange Weather, Winter’s Bone and Frozen River are headed by strong female leads on an odyssey. But that’s where the similarity ends.

The common denominator in Bone, Frozen and “Shameless” is authenticity—and that’s precisely what’s missing from Strange Weather (a title none-too-subtly hinting at Darcy’s bizarre mood swings in addition to the region’s extreme climate). Even Sharon Van Etten's country-infused score feels calculated and distracting.

In the end, what’s most interesting about Strange Weather is the fact that Holly Hunter is its star. It’s hard to fathom that an actor as distinguished and recognized as Hunter, especially in her heyday when she was featured in such films as Broadcast News and Raising Arizona, would gravitate to Strange Weather if she had any substantive choices, though she certainly gives the haunted, rugged old bird her best shot. That said, she evokes a Carnelle Scott retread, now embittered with the passage of time, right out of Beth Henley’s Miss Firecracker.

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