Jake Paltrow's Young Ones is a dustbowl Western with a sci-fi twist. It looks and sounds like the past: The plains are barren, the people wear cheap cotton and the score, by Nathan Johnson — all vibrating, beautiful melancholy — could be layered over any John Ford flick. But when their donkey snaps a limb, peddlers Ernest (Michael Shannon) and son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) shoot the animal and replace it with a robot, a high-stepping, spindly machine that looks like a pickup truck on legs.
That robot is easier to love than most of the humans, who've grown hard in this savage imagining of the West, where water is more precious than oil. The earth is parched. Everything from the brush to the hills is tumbleweed-beige, as is Shannon's face and hair and funny carved sunglasses, which resemble wooden nickels with slits. When he stands outside and squints at the camera, we can hardly see him.
Sighs Jerome, “I never saw this land when it was green.” That's his dad's fault. After the droughts, Ernest refused to leave, and the others who stayed are a lot like him — stubborn, self-interested, determined to protect what's theirs. In the opening scene, Ernest shoots two men for tampering with his well, yet he's still considered one of the finest folks in town. (Except for that time he got drunk and crashed a car, paralyzing his wife, played by Aimee Mullins, who now walks only when plugged in to an unnerving bionic spine.) Not that he has a lot of competition. Fourteen-year-old Jerome is too small to register as a man — with his big eyes and scrawny limbs, he looks more like a mouse. Local beggar Robbie (Christy Pankhurst) uses his newborn baby to wheedle for cash. And pretty boy Flem (Nicholas Hoult) lies to steal what he wants, including the heart of Jerome's flighty, feminine sister, Mary (Elle Fanning), who knows so little about the world that she thinks Flem, not her father, is the sensible man. (Which isn't entirely her fault — she spends the film trapped indoors, washing the family's dishes with dirt.)
Shannon was born to play characters like this. His iron jaw and broad bones bring the caveman in him close to the surface. Yet his voice — with that craggy, wheezy lilt — gives him fragility; since he doesn't use it much, those rare times he does talk sound as important and true as if God himself were using him as a mouthpiece. (The brutish Old Testament God, of course.) During a booze delivery to the workmen building an irrigation system, Shannon's Ernest tries, not for the first time, to get them to reroute the pipe past his farm. “My land's fertile, it's just dry,” he insists, and we're surprised they don't nod calmly and immediately agree.
If he can't convince them, what can — and at what cost? Young Ones hinges on a betrayal that sidelines Ernest and installs Flem as the new head of the household. Yet the irony is that cheating Flem might be the better man for the job, at least in this crooked countryside where nobody deals square. And in turn, when he discovers the truth about Flem, Jerome has to make the same choice again: Is the family better off under the rule of a fiend? Or the larger question: Can his generation succeed in escaping the mistakes of the previous?
Young Ones is an old-fashioned, worthwhile curio down to the closing credits, where every actor stands in front of a curtain stoically refusing to smile. That's a fitting end for a movie where emotions run so deep that they almost never burble up to the surface — a tear is harder to tap than Ernest's near-barren well. It's a solid second film for director Paltrow (his first was kooky comedy The Good Night) with just enough gee-whiz special effects to prove he can hang with the big boys, but also a soul as cold and grand as Erich von Stroheim's Greed, one of the first modern movies to show humanity in the sand, losing all hope.
That's a theme Westerns have returned to time and time again, usually to make the point that mankind has sullied the wild. In the last few years, however, these films have seemed even more hopeless, as though climate-change scientists have broken our trust that the land can save our souls. When Flem cautions, “Blame is just a lazy person's way of making sense of chaos,” he's almost sticking up for humanity, as though with deadly droughts seeming more real every year, there's nothing we can do besides fight for the planet's scraps.
Paltrow's vision of the future is so lived-in it practically feels like it was shot on location. He has a droll, light-fingered gift for the mundane: Where another director would glamorize the robot car lot, Paltrow layers over it the sound of a bored receptionist paging the salesman to pick up his phone extension. Young Ones' only visual flourish is a time-lapse of a barren field that sprouts green, grows tall and then bakes back into beige wheat. It's a gorgeous yet all too brief pop of color — and in fading, a reminder that here, even when these desert rats achieve their dreams, the happiness doesn't last.
YOUNG ONES | Written and directed by Jake Paltrow | Screen Media Films | NoHo