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Non-Review Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy is misconceived on just about every possible level.

On the most superficial and surface level, Hillbilly Elegy is the most cynical form of Oscar bait. It is a vehicle for actors Amy Adams and Glenn Close to take a run at awards season, turning the inner dial on their performances up to eleven playing absurd caricatures of complex and nuanced human beings. There are moments when, entirely divorced from its form or substance, Hillbilly Elegy veers into the realm of self-parody, as Adams musters every dramatic bone in her body to shout “bad dog!” with as much conviction as possible, as if every moment could be an Oscar clip.

“Looks like we got ourselves a good old-fashioned act-off.”

It isn’t that Close and Adams are bad performers. Indeed, there’s a credible argument to be made that – on some level – Hillbilly Elegy might be “worth it” if it eventually allows Adams to take home what will effectively be a career award. However, everything in Hillbilly Elegy is a staggeringly ill-judged combination of heightened melodrama and earnest sincerity. Ron Howard directs the film with a solemn profundity that suggests he is peeling back the layers of the American heartland, as if viewing the film through the lens of Terrence Malick via the Russo Brothers.

However, underneath the surface, there is something more insidious and uncomfortable at place in Hillbilly Elegy. The film is based on the autobiography of J.D. Vance, a book that became a breakout sensation in 2016. The arrival of the book coincided with the election of Donald Trump, and so it became a cornerstone of a subgenre of literature built around understanding Trump voters – the kind of soul-searching that led to fawning profiles of white nationalists in The New York Times. (While Vance characterises himself as “a nationalist”, the film overtly avoids his politics.)

Ad-Vancing.

This context perhaps explains the assurance and self-importance of Hillbilly Elegy, which at every turn presents itself as a window into a different culture – the idea of the “forgotten” America or the “left behind” America. Unfortunately, it also explains the most horrific aspect of the film, the way in which Hillbilly Elegy treats its characters as exhibits in some grotesque zoo. While adapted from a book written by a character rooted in that community, Hillbilly Elegy often feels like an anthropological study constructed from second- or third-hand accounts.

However, the movie’s most egregious fault might be how profoundly it misunderstands Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

This Cagney and Lacey reboot is really something.

Many the problems with Hillbilly Elegy exist in the gulf between what the film is and what the production team wish that it was. On the surface, Hillbilly Elegy presents itself as a window into a particular kind of American life, as a portrait of a community that is often misrepresented and misunderstood. The film makes an effort to mythologise this community, with Vance narrating folk wisdom like “you never start a fight – but if someone starts a fight with you, you better end it.” Talking about how life was governed by a code and “that code was everything.”

Of course, it doesn’t help that – on a simple nuts-and-bolts level – Hillbilly Elegy simply isn’t good. It is powered by cliché, with Vance never missing an opportunity to embellish his life with hackneyed attempts at poetry. Early in the film, he solemnly assures the viewer that the family’s migration away from their roots had a profound effect on them, “We were all different in Middletown somehow. Something was missing. Maybe hope.” Even in a better movie, that would be a terrible line. In Hillbilly Elegy, it sets the tone.

There have been plenty of movies exploring the experience of rural America, of communities often overlooked and ignored by the political and social establishment, including films like Winter’s Bone, Little Woods and Mickey and the Bear. It is very clear that Hillbilly Elegy wants to position itself in that space, just with a more mainstream director and a set of bigger stars with the potential for awards glory.

Hillbilly Elegy occasionally brushes against insight into this community. The film hints at systemic problems that explain things like the poverty, drug abuse and social disadvantage that are statistically common within that community. It is suggested that J.D.’s mother Beverly made her first step on the road to drug addiction through prescription pain killers at the hospital where she worked. The women in the Vance family have their lives derailed with teenage pregnancy, with Beverly railing at her daughter, “You think you’re special? That’s just what happens to girls.” 

A new wave.

However, Hillbilly Elegy is not actually interested in the systemic problems that exist or the social barriers that stand between these communities and higher standards of living. Instead, it follows the path of least resistance. Early in the film, J.D.’s social anxiety while attending a fancy recruitment dinner is played in cliché terms, presented as a fish out water. “They had two different kinds of white wine?” he freaks out to his girlfriend over the phone. “It’s a like a test.” He continues, “Why are there so many forks?” It’s all very surface level, all very routine.

This wouldn’t be as big a problem if Hillbilly Elegy didn’t seem so self-satisfied, constantly patting itself on the back for its insight into class in contemporary America. There is no depth or nuance here, no piercing insight. This is because it becomes very clear very early on that Hillbilly Elegy is not the story that director Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor think (or even want) it to be. This is not a portrait of a particular way of life. It is a long and extended tribute to an exceptional individual who was able to triumph over his circumstances by sheer force of will.

Hillbilly Elegy is essentially a gigantic love letter to J.D. Vance, which wouldn’t be as serious a problem if it wasn’t written by J.D. Vance, didn’t present itself as an earnest insight into another side of America, and wasn’t so cynical and ruthless in its positioning of other characters primarily in terms of their value to the myth that Vance is creating around himself. Hillbilly Elegy occasionally nods towards the system factors at play in explaining the poverty and destitution that surrounds J.D., but only in the context of it being something that he overcomes.

Indeed, J.D.’s sainthood is established quite ruthlessly in the opening scenes, in which the young boy saves a turtle as the kids around him want to pull it out of its broken shell. “They can heal,” Vance assures the teenagers. “Whatever,” they respond. Immediately, J.D. is established as having a moral fibre that is simply absent from the people around him. After all, it’s not intelligence or academic skills that get J.D. out of that community, Hillbilly Elegy insists. The film also seems to refuse that luck might have played a part. Instead, J.D. is simply better.

Frnakly my dear, I don’t give Adams.

This is most obvious in the film’s portrayal of J.D.’s relationship with his mother, Beverly. Bev is a drug addict. She is unreliable. She is suicidal. She is consistently presented as a burden to J.D., with the plot’s inciting incident being a heroin overdose that drags J.D. out of that awkward dinner and back home again. Everybody in Hillbilly Elegy seems to agree on one crucial point: it is all Bev’s fault. “You always got a reason,” complains Bev’s mother. “It’s always someone else’s fault. At some point you’re going to have to take responsibility, or someone else is gonna have to step in.”

Hillbilly Elegy never actually articulates the sentiment, but it repeatedly seems to imply that Bev’s addiction represents a simple failure of will on her own part, and a failure of the people around her to give her the tough love that she needs. When Bev asks J.D. to provide a urine sample for her, he berates here, “You should have thought about that before you got high.” He challenges his grandmother, “How is she gonna get better?” He insists, “If you put your foot down years ago, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Hillbilly Elegy becomes an ode to personal responsibility, arguing that J.D. has it and Bev does not, and this is why J.D. managed to escape the community around him while Bev could not. While the film subtly suggests that maybe Bev’s addictions were rooted in the malfeasance of the doctors at the hospital where she worked, the film explicitly parallels her experiences with highly addictive opioids to J.D.’s brief flirtation with marijuana. (J.D. classifies it as “a gateway drug”, and the following scenes support this.) If J.D. could get off marijuana, why couldn’t Bev quit heroin?

Of course, Hillbilly Elegy offers a more sentimental portrait of J.D.’s grandmother Mamaw, who offers tough love and monologues that hinge on a fatal misunderstanding of the movie Terminator 2. Mamaw helps to set J.D. on the straight and narrow, offering no-nonsense advice like, “Now stop stealin’ things, do your homework, and get rid of your loser friends.” If only more kids had surrogate parents like Mamaw, Hillbilly Elegy suggests, America would be a much more robust place.

“Yeah, Mom you shouldn’t have let your health insurance lapse. Just in case you thought for a moment this might be a systemic problem with a far-reaching solution.”

However, Hillbilly Elegy is careful to avoid giving Mamaw too much credit – as that would undermine the mythology of J.D. as a truly exceptional individual who succeeded on his own power. After all, the film suggests, America also needs more kids who enjoy watching Al Gore on Meet the Press. The film is full of wry and bitter dramatic irony. “You always got me,” Mamaw assures him, in a scene right before J.D. arrives home to find her collapsed in the kitchen. Hillbilly Elegy is very clear on this point. Everybody is ultimately on their own.

Indeed, despite its strained optimism and its cheesy invocation of wholesome Americana, Hillbilly Elegy reads more of justification than of vindication. The film seems to largely assure the viewer that J.D. made all the right choices, that he was right to leave his family behind to pursue his opportunities. “Don’t make us your excuse, J.D.,” pleads his sister Lindsay towards the end of the film.In his closing monologue, J.D. suggests that “where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day what we become”, while positioning his success as his family’s “shared legacy.”

This is where the film becomes toxic. Hillbilly Elegy is so eager to rationalise J.D.’s success that it seems incapable of suggesting that J.D.’s success could have come from anything other than his own commitment. The film occasionally gestures at how important other characters are to J.D.’s journey, but only as stepping stones. His girlfriend rushes to a law firm to tell them that he will be late for his interview, but that scene does not play out and J.D. never acknowledges it after the fact.

After all, if Hillbilly Elegy accepts that J.D. succeeded because of anything other than his own immense intelligence and strength of character – if the film concedes how much of his journey was down to luck, timing, gender and the support structures around him – then the house of cards would come tumbling down. Hillbilly Elegy would have to confront the reality of the world inhabited not by J.D., but by his sister Lindsay and his mother Bev.

Just lacking drive.

This is where the film’s misunderstanding of Terminator 2 comes into play. At one point, Mamaw explains life through the metaphor of Terminator 2, explaining that there are three types of killer robots from the future: “Good Terminators, Bad Terminators, and Neutral Terminators.” All that a person has to do, by Mamaw’s logic, is determine what kind of cybernetic assassin they want to be. Mamaw was a “Bad Terminator”, until she chose to become a “Good Terminator.” J.D. obviously decides to be a “Good Terminator.”

This misses the reality that the character in Terminator 2 had absolutely no choice in becoming a “Good Terminator.” It was reprogrammed by John Connor in the future and sent back in time with a new mission directive. The machine did not spontaneously choose to rewrite its own programming, nor to fight for humanity. It was shaped and moulded by outside forces, and guided by the characters around it. More than that, the Terminator fights and dies for more than just its own survival and advancement. Sarah and John Connor don’t sacrifice themselves for the Terminator.

Hillbilly Elegy tries to wrap a sentimentalist feelgood narrative around a community beset by systemic problems and real issues, trying to expand the autobiography of an exceptional case into a broader piece of social commentary that does little to flatter either approach. Hillbilly Elegy is a staggeringly tone-deaf piece of work, and it feels almost appropriate that it arrives towards the end of the Trump era as a bookend to similarly misguided explorations of that community at the start of the era.

Hillbilly Elegy is a disaster.

3 Responses

  1. Wait, this is actually real?!? It sounds like a really awful, cornball parody of a “feel good movie of the year” type train wreck.

    Y’know, at this point I am sick of these rural ultra-conservatives who grew up on a steady diet of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, who constantly yearn for the “good old days” and let themselves be brainwashed by Fox News, who think that rigged individuals and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is the only legitimate way to succeed, and who actually buy into the myth that Donald Trump is a “self-made man” rather than what he actually is, a moron of a trust fund kid who blew through his inheritance on a bunch of moronic investments & horribly-run businesses and who then had to be bailed out by foreign bankers and the Russian mafia.

    Seriously, enough with this whole “let’s try to understand the perspective of the white rural American working class” nonsense. How about THEY make an effort to understand the urban American working class, who are ALSO continually struggling to keep their heads above water in a horrific economy while beset by numerous serious social crises?

    I despise this fixation that people living in the “American heartland” are somehow more “real, everyday, down to Earth Americans” than people who live in the cities.

  2. I’m not from that culture, but there’s one thing I’ve been noticing more and more about it and which your description of this movie absolutely fits:

    NOBODY has more contempt for poor-white-rural-Middle-America than the people who grew up in it themselves.

    I’ve seen this from liberal types (especially women, especially from broken families) who loathe the sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism they faced growing up. I’ve seen it from conservative types like the J. D. Vance you’re describing who loathe the poverty they grew up in and look down on their peers for not having been smart or good or hardworking enough to escape it. And I’ve seen combinations and variations of the two. But it’s pretty noticeable no matter what form it takes, and tends to go well beyond any elitism that comes out of blue state middle classes.

  3. A wonderful, fair review. I did read the book and when I first saw the trailer I was really confused. I never imagined the film would have such shifts in focus and all the melodrama.

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