Image A- Sound B Extras B
"Fire in the Hole," "Riverbrook," "Fixer," "Long in the Tooth," "The Lord of War and Thunder," "The Collection," "Blind Spot," "Blowback," "Hatless," "The Hammer," "Veterans," "Fathers and Sons," "Bulletville"
by Jefferson Robbins Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Timothy Olyphant gotta sidle. It's the actor's natural means of locomotion--he may approach an object or adversary or inamorata head-on at first, but by the time he's within arm's length, his gaze has tilted to squint at his target with one coyote eye dominant. It's the walk not only of an actor who's thoroughly considered the best way to present himself to a camera, but also of a man who might have to reach for his pistol at any time. It may be an actorly crutch, but Olyphant can alternately wield it as a wedge, a hook, or a truncheon to coerce a viewer into watching him more closely. We want to know what he sees that makes his glare go askance.
The F/X cop drama "Justified", based on the work of Elmore Leonard, has Olyphant under the cowboy hat he never got to wear on "Deadwood". His boundary-pushing U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is a meld of American archetypes: the upright modern G-man, the backwoods Southern hick, and the frontier sheriff. A product of the blood-drenched hollers of Harlan County, Kentucky, Raylan fled the sticks to become a federale, and a quick-draw pistol artist to boot.* The career choice and the headwear, while a natural fit, speak to Raylan as a child of TV who grew up longing for a moral code. The Marshals are a throwback to the Old West, still operating even though their tasks--summonses, prisoner transport, fugitive capture--could be easily accomplished by larger, newer federal agencies. Raylan, .45 automatic on his hip, works his beat on the High Noon principle, giving all his enemies a chance to pull out of a fight before he shoots them dead. His opening confrontation with Miami murderer Tommy Bucks (Peter Greene, looking suitably bleached and cancerous) establishes his M.O.: he'd rather persuade than pump a man full of bullets, although he's adept at both, and he holds the latter option close.
The Bucks affair leads the Marshals to reassign Raylan from Miami to their Kentucky district, which happens to encompass his old Harlan stomping grounds, his ogreish father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry), his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), and a clan of criminal crackers called the Crowders. Persuasion again is Raylan's initial approach to white supremacist/demolition maniac Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), with whom he bonded when both were young men mining coal, but Boyd's lately-widowed sister-in-law Ava (Joelle Carter) is a tempting distraction who ups the stakes too far for detente. Though the series drifts into unrelated cases, these three form a strong tripod for the overarching drama--which, as the title implies, is concerned with the consequences of lawful violence. Raylan gets to shoot people, like all TV cops do, but he doesn't get to forget about it afterwards.
Winona's description of the easygoing, confident Raylan as "the angriest man I ever met" doesn't quite scan for me. He's no Seth Bullock; Olyphant has the nuclear option of crazy-eyed clenching, but that button never gets pushed here. Instead, we get his bedroom stare, something he uses on practically everybody. (My spouse was put off by his approach at times: "He looks like he's flirting with the bad guy.") Olyphant's performance is finely tuned, inner-directed, and intelligent. His Raylan understands the Leonardian (Elmorian?) philosophy, best stated by George Clooney in Out of Sight, that most criminals are, in fact, dipshits, and even the smart ones are seldom as smart as they think they are. Episode six, "The Collection," takes its lead from that most elegant crime story, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. Raylan uses his smarts rather than his sidearm, turning his high-class foes on each other and earning a grace note in his relationship with his estranged daddy in the process. That prods at one problem I have with the show: the mirroring of wayward sons with bad fathers. Arlo Givens, who can't seem to pin down an accent, is doubled with Boyd Crowder's old man Bo (M.C. Gainey, the discount-bin Stacy Keach), who's likewise about three states shy of a Kentucky drawl. There's drama for sure in men wrestling with their legacies, but these two relationships and the way they're intertwined never feel genuinely full--more like scripting workshoppery.
"Justified" compels with its pilot, as Raylan re-learns his home territory and tries to bring the dangerous Boyd to heel. After that, it offers a fistful of one-off episodes that feel like Elmore Leonard watered-down and denatured. Raylan encounters a fleeing convict who gets the drop on him, snatches his pistol, and locks him in a walk-in cooler--an echo of Out of Sight minus the erotic tension. "Did he rape you too?" asks his supervisor, Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), in a cringeworthy line played as comedy. Ha fucking ha. The writing early in the series misses lots of ripe opportunities and goes for lowest-common-denominator dialogue choices, trying to reel in casual viewers for the payoff of the Crowder drama. But we can see the care that's being applied overall, especially in the lighting, the shooting (DP Francis Kenny does yeoman's duty throughout), and the attention to character. There's a nice SteadiCam shot in episode 1.5, "The Lord of War and Thunder," in which Raylan confronts a gang of oxycontin smugglers who happen to be renting property from his father. The marshal steps in and out of darkness while disclosing much about his own past--he's both present in the room and not, simultaneously surrounded by threat and lost in reverie. It's electric. When it's at its best, "Justified" puts us back in that room, always uncertain whether a standoff will end in a hail of lead or a plate of fried chicken.
The supporting ensemble ticks nicely, each character with his or her own story--except Erica Tazel's junior marshal, given little to do except be the black woman in a roomful of white men. (She disappears partway through the season.) Raylan's officemates are there for standard infodumps, particularly early in the series, but they feel like whole people. Jacob Pitts plays Marshal Tim Gutterson, a former Marine sniper in Afghanistan, who could be just a dramatic tool in some writer's kit--but by the time he turns up unexpectedly drunk in episode 1.11, "Veterans," it's clear he's still shaking off the blood and sand. William Ragsdale plays Winona's new husband, a realtor who's charmingly out of his depth, picking up investors in dark corners. Goggins has an unhinged Jason Patric appeal, a degree of unpredictable wit that makes him Olyphant's slightly shorter equal in the scenes they share. He's a moonshine-country Lex Luthor, complicated by a religious conversion that may or may not be genuine. (I suspect someone wanted the long-term villain to be more likable, that most weasely of all producer's notes, but Goggins really sells it.)
Joelle Carter, for whom I've wished nothing but good since she tremblingly showed up Rob Gordon for the giant asshole he is in High Fidelity, melds sophistication with the lank-haired, thin-lipped beauty of a Dorothea Lange portrait. She feels Kentucky to me--more than I can say for many of the performers, or for some of the stories, which seem reluctant to root in the real grit of the South. We get meth labs but no meth addicts, miners but no blacklung. Interlopers--cartel hitmen, Detroit legbreakers, fugitives in other states whom Raylan has to go an' git--more often threaten the environs of Harlan and Lexington. (Alan Ruck's criminal dentist from episode four, "Long in the Tooth," is a standout in this field.) There's fun to be had in trainspotting Olyphant's former "Deadwood" co-stars W. Earl Brown and Sean Bridgers, and with the appearance of Travis Wester as a heavy in 1.9, "Hatless," we're teased with a Euro Trip mini-reunion. Alas, Gutterson never turns up for the payoff.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
On Blu-ray, "Justified" is a lovely thing to look at, revelling in shadows and closeups of its handsome cast. The HDCAM-sourced 1.78:1, 1080p presentation gives Raylan room to amble, and something in its colour palette truly does say Kentucky...until anybody gets into a car, and the rolling exteriors outside are shown up as bad CG composites. It's an awful distraction when everything else on display feels so worldly. The 5.1 DTS-MA track is best in exterior scenes, as the crickets hum about us, but because the mix pays little attention to the subwoofer, the overall soundscape comes across as kind of thin. My amplifier doesn't like the audio track of the main menu, mastered as LPCM 5.1, and shunts it down to a whisper. It's puzzling, since the menu includes an onboard volume control in case you want to turn down the loop of "Justified"'s theme song, "Long Hard Times To Come," by Gangstagrass. (Bryant Frazer encourages me to think of it as a feature, not a bug.) The series' title sequence desperately wants to be "True Blood", but it can't show tits.
The show's creators and participants sign on for four commentary tracks staggered across the set. Creator Graham Yost heads up the yakker on the pilot, "Fire in the Hole," with director Michael Dinner, Elmore Leonard's researcher(!) Gregg Sutter, and actor Nick Searcy shuffling in with twenty-five minutes to spare. Drawn almost entirely from the Leonard short story of the same name, the pilot was shot largely in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania and drew on the urban and rural decay there to simulate Harlan. Everyone on the track has a rich knowledge and appreciation of Leonard's oeuvre, as summed up by Dinner: "The bad guys are just one chromosome short of being good guys, and the good guys are complicated." Searcy, a Southerner, compliments the accents--I think he's being generous, or simply well-paid. On the commentary for episode six, Yost cops to the obvious challenges of doing an Elmore Leonard voice when you're not Leonard and acknowledges that the first part of the season suffered as a result. Olyphant leads the chatter on episode nine, with Zea and writer Dave Andron joining him. His eccentric attitude towards the recording session is compounded by his frustration with its corporate strictures: "You know what else you can't do? You can't drop an F-bomb. So fuck all you people at home."
"There aren't that many actors who deliver the lines the way I heard them when I wrote them," the much-adapted Leonard avers in the special feature "What Would Elmore Do?" (19 mins.). This is by way of an attaboy to Olyphant, who apparently fills the bill so well in "Justified" that Leonard went back to writing new Raylan Givens stories after letting the character lie fallow for years. The featurette's title comes from wristbands distributed to the creative staff as they worked to flesh out the world of Leonard's fiction--a touch that strikes me as Trying Too Hard. Meanwhile, everybody from Yost to Olyphant calls the author "Elmore." What happened to "Mr. Leonard?" Respect your betters, kids. "The Story of 'Justified'" (5 mins.) is typical EPK pabulum that happens to catch Adam Arkin on the set; I didn't know he'd moved from acting to directing, but it turns out he's been doing both since 1993. "I think there's something great about not being afraid to embrace the dirtiness of the South," Zea says in her segment. As a child of mixed Tennessee-Virginia heritage, I thank her on behalf of one-third of the country--and as I noted, the show doesn't kiss the grime unreservedly.
Those damn WWED? bracelets get referenced here again. "'Justified': Meet the Characters" (5 mins.)...the title says it all. "Shooting for Kentucky" (16 mins.) explores costuming and design efforts to capture the look and feel of the Bluegrass State, and it appears the scouts have done their fieldwork. Here, find Yost acknowledging that the composited driving shots look like hell. "Meet the Marshals" is a 13-minute historical overview with Charlie Almanza, the service's consultant on the series. All video-based extras are in HiDef with DD 2.0 stereo audio. A preview for the Australian thriller Red Hill opens Disc 3 automatically, while optional previews can be found for The Social Network, Nowhere Boy, the restored Bridge On the River Kwai, the El Mariachi Trilogy, Faster, and Cuba Gooding Jr.'s direct-to-video vehicle Ticking Clock. Originally published: February 22, 2011.
*This Le Samourai gimmick is starting to follow Olyphant around from project to project. It happens in The Crazies, too: there is no gun in his hand--and then there is. return
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