Life, sliced

Hey, I know. Let’s go sign up to be toothpaste models!

Hey, I know. Let’s go sign up to be toothpaste models!

Rated 5.0

Junebug is one of those once-every-other-year movies. Its portrayal of people is so insightful that at times it’s downright scary. Director Phil Morrison and his cast have mastered the nuances that make human characters human rather than vessels blathering a bunch of words strung together to fill up movie time.

George and Madeleine (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz) meet at her art benefit, fall in love and are promptly married without Madeleine meeting George’s family. Six months later, they travel to North Carolina on a mission to sign a contract with an eccentric artist (a wonderfully bizarre Frank Hoyt Taylor) whose Civil War paintings reveal a fondness for large genitalia and dog heads. The trip also will bring them to meet George’s family.

Most eager to meet her new sister-in-law is Ashley (Amy Adams), who’s married to George’s aloof and despondent brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie). Ashley, in her ninth month of pregnancy, has a personality that tops off the joy meter. She utterly refuses to acknowledge the dark cloud hovering over her husband’s head, and, within moments of meeting Madeleine, jaunts with her off to the mall.

Mom (Celia Weston) is suspicious of Madeleine: “She doesn’t look like she can cook.” Dad (the great Scott Wilson) is painfully reserved, often retiring to the basement to do some woodcarving and take a break from his wife’s watchful eyes.

It’s clear that George hasn’t told Madeleine everything about his home life; here he takes on the appearance of a devout Christian, singing a striking hymn at a church gathering and closing his eyes for earnest prayer. Madeleine looks astonished that the man who slept with her moments after they met actually cracks a Bible every once in a while.

While significant events do take place within its storyline, Morrison’s film is more about discovering secrets and surviving the paranoia of marrying somebody before you know them. The look on Madeleine’s face when George sings his hymn is priceless, as though she’s thinking, “I actually married this guy?”

Great directing and writing doesn’t require a massive back story, and Junebug doesn’t waste time explaining why George is secretive and insecure, or why Johnny treats his wife like shit, or why Ashley has such a sunny disposition. The viewer can fill in the story, a fun task given the richness and complexity of each character.

Davidtz, who’s had a nutty career full of triumphs (Schindler’s List) and garbage (Thir13en Ghosts), delivers career-best work. It’s the sort of acting that should provide her with a career renaissance. Adams, also a Spielberg alumna with her standout role in Catch Me if You Can, won a performance award at Sundance this year, and that’s no surprise. Her work as Ashley, especially in a barn-burning scene shared with Nivola at a hospital, is revelatory. She’s been seen as a reliable supporting performer until now, but I imagine this movie could open a lot of lead-actress doors.

Nivola, probably best known for playing Nicolas Cage’s quiet brother in Face/Off, is so strong you wonder where the guy has been all these years. Wilson gives a performance that requires little in terms of spoken words. He says much with his bewildered eyes.

This is Morrison’s debut as a feature-film director, and it’s an amazing start. Based on the quality of performances he’s managed to assemble for Junebug, Hollywood’s best probably will be clamoring to work for the guy.