Whispering Dixie: Quiet Revelations in a Reunion Drama

Opening with stark shots of solitary Southern men catapulting their voices in shivery hill country hollers, Phil Morrison's Junebug immediately establishes a mood of uneasy meditation. This yodeling, with its pragmatic roots as essential mountain communication and present status as a purely vestigial skill, certainly qualifies as "outsider art"—something of great interest to primitivist cosmopolitan types. And it's outsider art of the visual sort that catalyzes Junebug's tense family reunion, as thirtysomething art dealer Madeleine and her husband George make a trip to his North Carolina hometown for the dual purpose of patching up familial estrangement and cultivating a patronage relationship with a local painter, Dixie's version of Darger.

Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan sketch the defining details of the central relationship with luminous economy. We learn that the newlyweds, played by Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz, share an electric attraction, yet are still feeling out each other's history and hang-ups. As we meet the members of George's family—guarded bleach-blonde mom (Celia Weston); meek, fidgety dad (Scott Wilson), resentful younger brother Johnny (The O.C.'s Benjamin McKenzie); and Johnny's naive, over friendly, pregnant wife Ashley (the abundantly charismatic Amy Adams)—we are given just glimpses of their motivations but never the kind of explicated backstory that the considerable tension seems to warrant. Even the camera takes frequent breaks from their awkward interactions to meditate on empty, budget-quaint rooms and hot, manicured lawns. At intervals, the nowheresville quiet is augmented by the sound dropping out entirely.

It's an exhilaratingly decentered tale, with the perspective shifting around so there's no character with whom we totally identify throughout. What narrative force there is comes via the run-up to the birth of Ashley's child and the vacillation of Madeleine's potential client, a civil-war-obsessed artist played with a little too much Sling Blade brio by Frank Hoyt Taylor. But these story arcs are trumped over and over by revelatory moments that linger far longer: the desperation of the rattling questions Ashley puts to Madeleine at every turn; brother Johnny's one thwarted flash of selflessness and one act of extreme violence; the church basement party where George sheepishly agrees to perform a hymn, to Madeleine's obvious surprise.

An electric attraction: Davidtz and Nivola
photo: Robert Kirk/Sony Pictures Classics
An electric attraction: Davidtz and Nivola

Morrison is fascinated by the power of what isn't spoken. His laconic, suburban Southern milieu is a welcome antidote to the rot and squalor favored by David Gordon Green, and his principals are far from Green's yammering self-analysts. In every one of Junebug's relationships, negotiations made outside the scope of the frame have resulted in coded understandings. When behavior falls outside those routines—as when Madeleine reaches out to George's family members and ends up seeming flirtatious or condescending, or when George's mother eyes her new daughter-in-law with flashes of horror-film contempt—mundane actions can seem as strange as the self-taught painter's bloody, sexual tableaux. Morrison mostly succeeds in his attempt to show how secret knowledge can result in sudden violence as well as long-term, lived-in acceptance. There's a sense that everyone is an outsider artist of their own singular experience, and that creating even the most basic consensus is an artistic achievement in itself.

 
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