Dir: Dan Ireland. US. 2008. 110mins


Dan Ireland’s latest film is an episodic saga about a young woman’s sexual odyssey across America in her quest for independence and happiness. Based on a short story by EL Doctorow, it bears similarities to other ‘journey’ movies like Palindromes or The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but is more old-style soap opera than experimental Indie. While its lumpy story drags long before its running time is up, the film serves as the perfect showcase for new star Jessica Chastain, a dazzling redhead whose talent and radiance keeps its many parts watchable.

Attention for her performance and the eclectic cast of well-known faces will help the film find a small theatrical audience before becoming a popular curio on DVD and TV. The film had its domestic premiere at the Seattle Film Festival last June but screens again at Palm Springs this week (Jan 10) and has a domestic deal pending.

Ireland, a busy director whose credits include Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont, The Velocity Of Gary and The Whole Wide World, exhibits plenty of ambition in the scale of his story which takes place over ten years and sees the titular character engage in five different love affairs in different states.

Jolene is a beautiful 15-year-old when the film starts. She’s grown up in a succession of abusive foster homes and sees the perfect out by marrying a dim but sweet car mechanic called Mickey (Newman). The newly weds move into the house of his uncle Phil (Mulroney) and aunt Kay (Russell) and it’s not long before Jolene is engaged in a passionate affair with Phil. When they are inevitably discovered in flagrante, Mickey kills himself, leaving Phil behind bars for statutory rape and Jolene in a psychiatric institution.

A keen and apparently talented artist, Jolene flourishes by painting portraits of her fellow inmates but once again devises an escape plan by seducing a prison guard (Fisher) who smuggles her out.

On the road on her own for the first time, Jolene hitches and hustles her way across the country, landing for a while with a charismatic tattoo artist (Friend) whom she marries only to discover that he is already married (to Richards, in a tiny cameo). Moving on to Vegas, she becomes a stripper where she is spotted and wooed by kindly gangster Chazz Palminteri who treats her like a queen and encourages her painting until he is bumped off in front of her eyes.

Finally, she gets an office job in Tulsa where she is seduced by the unstable heir to an oil fortune (Vartan) who pushes her into marriage, only to unleash monstrous jealousy and violence once she gets pregnant.

Will Jolene ever find happiness’ The question is somewhat irrelevant by the time the Dynasty-esque Vartan section begins, especially since Jolene’s choice of disastrous men belies her obvious intelligence and resourcefulness. Chastain, however, makes the character compelling, investing her with raw tenderness and believable artistic sensibilities in addition to the sexual power she is forced to exploit as currency. The actress has a vibrant face and magnetic charisma, and it is no surprise that she won lead roles in the next Terrence Malick and John Madden films on the back of Jolene.

The film occasionally recalls a lush sixties melodrama of the Peyton Place or ValleyOf The Dolls variety and there are flashes of exploitation (does Vartan really need to rape her anally on their wedding night’) which indicate the fine line that Ireland is walking in telling such a spicy story.

Production company
Next Turn Productions

International sales
Intandem Films
(44) 20 7851 3800

Riva Yares
Zachary Matz

Dennis Yares
From the short story Jolene: A Life by EL Doctorow

Claudio Rocha

Production designer
Bernt Capra

Luis Colina

Harry Gregson Williams

Main cast
Jessica Chastain
Dermot Mulroney
Michael Vartan
Rupert Friend
Chazz Palminteri
Frances Fisher
Theresa Russell
Denise Richards