Ulee’s Gold–and there’s an almost daringly noncommercial title for you–is intimate but intense. It zooms in up-close on subjects that are usually considered “small,” like domestic arrangements, the routine weariness of visiting a loved one in prison, beekeeping, etc., but it holds onto them with a white-knuckled grip that makes it clear that for Ulee Jackson (Peter Fonda) and his family, these things aren’t small at all. The film does have a slight crime plot, incorporating some hidden bank robbery cash, a hostage situation, and even a gun, but none of that is really the focus, and it doesn’t bear most of the emotional weight. It’s just a way to bring the unyielding, bitterly angry and hurt Ulee to a place where he can forgive and allow himself to be vulnerable.
It’s an interestingly well-balanced film. It takes a while to gather up your emotional investment in Ulee: Fonda plays him like he’s constantly clenching his fists and his jaw to keep himself in check, to hold in everything that he’s feeling, and it’s a portrayal that deliberately estranges your sympathies. It’s behavior by Ulee the man as much as Fonda the performer, and it’s there to make you want to leave him alone. Despite that, we see that Ulee is–or was–part of the community in his small, muggy Florida town, and gradually, as he softens and lets go, we come to understand better why people might hold onto him while he’s going through this rough patch. His care of his granddaughters (Jessica Biel and Vanessa Zima, both good) starts to show more tenderness. He reconnects with his estranged daughter-in-law and facilitates her reunion with her children. What started out as grim accommodation of needed-but-unwanted nursing help from Patricia Richardson’s Connie turns into genuine warmth and an easily-predicted but satisfying budding romance.
In the end, it’s the simple story of one family pulling their shared life back together, reentering the world around them, and risking themselves emotionally again. I started to say that it’s the kind of movie Roger Ebert would have liked, and apparently he did like it. It makes me nostalgic for a time when these kinds of movies–not necessarily artistically daring, but deeply human and willing to go slow and unflashy–came around more often.