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Yes, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Is Very Bad

Ron Howard’s Oscar-baiting Netflix adaptation focuses on the so-called “forgotten” citizens of red state America—but it has zero interest in actually exploring the group

Netflix/Ringer illustration

There are worse movies to base a worldview on than Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In addition to its many virtues as an action film, a special-effects showcase, and a royalty-generator for George Thorogood and the Destroyers, James Cameron’s 1991 sci-fi epic contains a number of potentially excellent personal mantras, ranging from existential statements (“There is no fate but what we make for ourselves”) to everything-Zen affirmations (“chill out, dickwad”).

Mamaw Vance’s (Glenn Close) favorite line from T2 is “Hasta la Vista, baby”, which is fair enough: it’s close to the ultimate Schwarzenegger one-liner, a kiss-off for when you’ve definitively kicked somebody’s ass. Watching the film on cable for the millionth time with her teenage grandson J.D. (Owen Asztalos), the septuagenarian Kentuckian expounds on its philosophical utility by telling the boy that “everyone in this world is one of three kinds: Good Terminator, Bad Terminator, and Neutral.”

Imagine the “dicks, pussies, and assholes” speech from Team America: World Police framed as a piece of homespun wisdom instead of nihilist satire and you’ll know how seriously to take Hillbilly Elegy, the movie Mamaw Vance inhabits. But not only is Ron Howard’s film adaptation less intellectually profound than Team America—or for that matter, Terminator 2—it’s also less emotionally acute.

Having not read J.D. Vance’s 2016 Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, I can’t say whether this monologue was spoken by the real-life Mamaw Vance or is an invention of the film’s Oscar-nominated screenwriter Vanessa Taylor. The most curious thing about Hillbilly Elegy is how little interest it shows in exploring or expounding on its source material’s subtitle. There is definitely a family in crisis here, with Close’s steely-eyed, indomitable Mamaw—who surely fits her own definition of a Good Terminator—trying simultaneously to shield J.D. from his high-speed train wreck of a mother, Bev (Amy Adams), while making him understand how and why her pain has been inherited. The scenes presided over by Close are set in the late ’90s, all the better to deploy soundtrack cues by Local H and Eagle-Eye Cherry; in sequences set closer to the present tense, the adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso) tries to reconcile these difficult memories with Ivy League aspirations. Both timelines are replete with high-decibel melodrama designed to prompt big, sloppy audience responses—you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl, etc. But for all that screaming, Hillbilly Elegy communicates precious little about the culture it depicts—and exploits—with Oscar-baiting aspirations.

The lure of Vance’s book was as sharp and double-pronged as a fly-fishing line, reeling in suckers with a good old-fashioned story of American aspirationalism—of a decent, promising kid pulling himself out of the muck by his fraying bootstraps—and then floating dubious social theories about learned grievance and self-pity. In attempting to filter ostensibly objective socioeconomic analysis through his own memories, the writer ended up projecting his frustrations onto an entire, diverse swath of American citizenry. While its author laid claim to the role of an empathetic truth-teller, the book laid blame for complex cycles of poverty, drug addiction, and anti-government resentment at the feet of his literal and figurative kin.

Released into a tumultuous zeitgeist where writers and readers on both sides of the ideological divide were looking for explanations about how and why white voters had flocked to an extremist presidential candidate, Hillbilly Elegy was sold as a kind of sociopolitical Rosetta Stone—a primer for “economic anxiety” and other delicate euphemisms coined around Trump’s election. “Anyone wanting to understand Trump’s rise or American inequality should read it,” said Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, conferring the sort of official gravitas that leads to lots of arts-section profiles and op-ed coverage, not all of which was positive even before the backlash, but which was united in the basic assumption that this was a book worth taking seriously.

One thing that might have made Hillbilly Elegy, the movie, more interesting—and more useful as anything other than an act of brand extension—would have been dramatizing Vance’s post-bestseller status as what The New Republic’s Sarah Jones called “the False Prophet of Blue State America.” Even if it would be foolish to expect a director like Ron Howard— who never read a true-life story he couldn’t mine for inspirational uplift, from Apollo 13 to A Beautiful Mind to Rush—to produce an even mildly subversive movie, the extent to which the film buys into Vance’s projected, self-protective image as a troubled yet dutiful defender of his Appalachian birthright is total, and occasionally embarrassing. Attending a fancy-schmancy D.C. dinner with a group of prospective white-collar employers, J.D. righteously chews out a tablemate for insensitivity and then suffers a borderline panic attack over not knowing which fork to use, a moment conveyed by Howard through a series of wobbly, stylized first-person perspectives suggesting a mortified fugue state. It’s not a good scene.

It’s not that making a movie about class-based anxiety in America circa 2020 is inherently a bad idea; one could argue that it is in fact a deeply urgent subject. But Hillbilly Elegy is so determined to have it both ways—to draw us into J.D.’s aching ambivalence about his background while structuring itself around the bravery and necessity of his escape—that it just about cancels itself out, and what’s left over is familiar from plenty of other movies indulging in ethnographic tackiness. Taylor’s script is built around the ticking-clock conceit that J.D has just 24 hours in his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, to deal with Bev’s latest relapse and its effect on his long-suffering sister Lindsay (the excellent Haley Bennett); sweaty, unshaven, and exhausted from a 10-hour drive, he needs to get his mom into a rehab program (against her wishes) and hightail it back to Washington in time for an early-morning job interview at a prestigious law firm. The result of this setup is that instead of unfolding as a thoughtful, contemplative piece of social portraiture, Hillbilly Elegy is pressurized as a thriller—a weird, alternative version of The Firm in which the small-town boy isn’t threatened or alienated by his high-rolling corporate employers but wants desperately to join their ranks.

Making matters worse, J.D. isn’t a particularly likable character. Whenever our hero is on the phone with his beautiful, attentive, supportive law student girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), and she tells him how much she loves him, it’s as if she’s there to direct us how to feel in the absence of any otherwise compelling evidence. (In real life, Usha Chilukuri clerked for Brett Kavanaugh—an affiliation in line with her husband’s trajectory as a conservative celebrity). In a way, the actor’s personality vacuum doesn’t matter, because while Hillbilly Elegy is staunchly aligned with J.D. as a protagonist, the film is primarily a showcase for its female stars, both of whom tear into their meaty roles with a ravenousness that is, depending on your view, either unbecoming of their talents or the logical endpoint of each of them getting stiffed at the Oscars so many times.

It’s worth remembering that Adams first broke through in a country girl role in Phil Morrison’s lovely 2005 drama Junebug. As the perpetually smiling, impossibly pregnant sister-in-law to the film’s city-mouse protagonist, the actress channeled a screwball optimism that made the character an endearing emblem of small-town decency without resorting to condescension. In addition to being funny and charming, Junebug dealt intelligently with social and cultural contrasts: its common denominator was a willingness to give everybody on-screen the benefit of the doubt. In Hillbilly Elegy, because we see Bev through J.D.’s eyes, she’s less a person to be met than a problem to be dealt with, and instead of transcending expectations, Adams gives precisely the kind of showy, strategically unflattering performance you’d expect. It’s all wild, darting eyes, sudden, chaotic outbursts and sad, tired smiles. These touches are exceedingly skillful and yet never convincing as anything more than an inventory of Adams’s facility and technique.

Close fares a little bit better despite being given less to work with. Mamaw’s Good Terminator job description means lurching around the flashback sequences to either comfort J.D. every time Bev screws up or confront him when he starts parroting her behaviors. In other words, she’s the movie’s conscience, and that’s a hard thing to play. Close compensates by making it seem like Mamaw is leaning into her own hard-edged archetype—that this stooped, wizened matriarch knows exactly how she looks and sounds to those who love her as well as those who don’t, and that she refuses to let it undermine her authority. Whatever’s funny on purpose in Hillbilly Elegy derives from Close’s actorly instincts, but a few flashes of inspiration and some good gravelly line readings aren’t nearly enough to offset the film’s flaws—chief among them a refusal to interrogate its own reason for being.

In her terrific 2002 documentary The True Meaning of Pictures, Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal profiled the photographer Shelby Lee Adams, an artist of Appalachian descent whose stridently stylized portraits of indigent Kentucky families—shot in finely etched black and white and arranged as confrontational tableaus of an anachronistic lifestyle refusing to sync with modernity—made him a lightning rod for acclaim and controversy, a forerunner to J.D. Vance minus the visibility.

The form of Baichwal’s film is observational rather than didactic; it doesn’t make judgements about Adams’s work, but every scene still asks us to consider what we’re looking at: not just the pictures themselves, but Adams’s relationship to his subjects, and the responses of the cosmopolitan gallery-goers squinting thoughtfully at his work, perhaps seeing only what they want to see—or what Adams wants them to.

The True Meaning of Pictures plunges into the very issues of representation that Howard plows past in pursuit of something more broadly accessible—a glossy, digitally streaming end-of-year piece of entertainment that counts on contemporary political polarization as a selling point. In Hillbilly Elegy, there are multiple scenes where we see various neighbors and locals react in quiet, tight-lipped horror at the Vance clan’s dysfunctional interactions. These shots of shameless rubbernecking are the closest that Howard’s film comes to a truly honest image—unfortunately, they’re entirely an accident.