Sometimes the most welcome gifts are those from unexpected sources. Peter Fonda, of all people, presents one in Victor Nunez's exquisite "Ulee's Gold." As a solitary Florida beekeeper who saves himself by reconstituting his family, Fonda gives a heartbreaking performance that is at once restrained and deeply felt. Spare of word, Fonda nonetheless conveys a lifetime of regret and yearning and also a hard-earned dignity. He is magnificent.
It has been nearly 30 years since Fonda roared into cinematic prominence on a motorcycle in "Easy Rider," 30 years and an endless string of forgettable parts in mostly B-movies. If he was gathering himself for this role as Ulee Jackson, it was time well spent. His performance is worthy of any Fonda.
And reminiscent of one: Henry.
Like his father, Peter communicates a fertile interior life through his movements, in a loping walk, for example, or a dip in his baleful gaze. Peter now even resembles Henry with his rimless glasses, his sandpaper face and square jaw, and his compressed lips, which seem like barriers to a storm of emotions roiling inside. But this is no imitation; it is a wise and nuanced performance by an actor knowing exactly what he is about.
The film's title refers to the high-grade tupelo honey Ulee produces in the piney woods of the Florida panhandle. It also refers to his real, unrecognized treasure, a family that has been fractured by death, crime, drugs and Ulee's own retreat from life. The names in Nunez's screenplay -- Ulysses, Penelope, Helen -- are drawn from Homer's "Odyssey," but Ulee isn't drawn to epic travel. Left to his own devices, he is burrowing as deep within himself as he can get.
Nunez opens "Ulee's Gold" with a languid survey of a swampy, North Florida woods as eerily beautiful as it is corrosive. Ulee himself has suffered serious erosion. He has the stiff, bow-legged limp of a wounded soldier and the guilty conscience of a squadron's only survivor. He's a widower, whose patient wife outwaited his Vietnam funk only to run smack- dab into cancer. His son Jimmy drifted off into armed robbery and his daughter-in-law Helen into drug addiction. All that keeps Ulee from complete erasure now are the two granddaughters he's been left to raise and the comforting solitude of his profession.
"I'm just all worn out," he admits to his neighbor, Connie (Patricia Richardson of "Home Improvement).
In reaction to this battering, Ulee has gone on a determined march away from the world, spurning help and kindnesses from old friends. But he's too overmatched to sustain his granddaughters, Casey (Jessica Biel), a rebellious teen with a self-destructive streak, and her little sister Penny (Vanessa Zima), who carries a sadness too great for a child.
The road to redemption for Ulee and his family is even more trouble. His son Jimmy (Tom Wood), doing time in prison, begs Ulee to rescue his wife Helen (Christine Dunford), strung out in Orlando. Worse, she's in the company of Jimmy's former partners, a couple of mean, low-end models, who threaten Ulee's granddaughters unless he delivers $100,000 in loot Jimmy stashed somewhere.
"Ulee's Gold" has more of a narrative than Nunez's last picture, the equally thoughtful "Ruby in Paradise" (Ashley Judd's launching vehicle), but it's no thriller. Nunez is a director willing to take his time, confident in the power of character and detail. "Ulee's Gold" heads toward a predictable ending, but the performances are so intelligent and convincing that the contrivances feel well-earned. Nunez is more interested in each scene being fully realized than in building momentum.
The most mesmerizing scenes in "Ulee's Gold" are simply watching Fonda's measured movement. Whether he's taking off his glasses -- first one earpiece, then the other -- or winching a load of beehives onto his pickup, his gestures seem natural and eternal. They convey both weariness and strength.
No filmmaker in recent memory has spent so much time showing a character at work or communicating so much in those scenes. Ulee is a third-generation beekeeper, and the bees are his refuge, his solace. They may be inherently dangerous, but Ulee understands bees and knows what to expect from them. He's more wary of the stings from human beings.
But Ulee is brave enough to adjust. Initially resentful of having to care for his daughter-in-law, Ulee watches appreciatively as Helen reconnects with her daughters. And he lets himself accept help from Connie, who awakens feelings he presumed dead forever.
The changes in Ulee are not dramatic. He is not so much a man transformed as one who learns to reveal compassion for those he loves. Ulee is a man of grace and fortitude, as compelling a figure as any in recent American movie. Together, Fonda and Nunez effect a piece of filmmaking that is magical and quietly moving, a gift every bit as sweet as Ulee's tupelo.
Starring Peter Fonda
Directed by Victor Nunez
Released by Orion Pictures
Rated R (infrequent obscenities)
Sun score: ****
Pub Date: 6/27/97