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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.

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