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In the middle of the Great Depression, many without jobs travel about as seasonal workers, picking fruit and laboring on farms when the harvest is ready. In California, on the Bolton Orchard, hundreds arrive for apple picking on the promise of three dollars a day pay. The boss, Chris Bolton (Robert Duvall), however, assembles the tattered, hungry hands and informs them though that “times are tough” so all he’s got to pay them is a single dollar for their efforts. Frustrated but with nowhere else to go, they can’t resist and take to the job under the near cruel, armed supervision of Bolton’s Foreman (Scott Haze). Worse, conditions, like everywhere, are poor and often dangerous.
Into this situation come Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff) and Mac (James Franco), two, who with good intentions, scheme to disrupt the picking and organize a strike in the name of labor equality and worker’s rights. Mac, the leader of the pair, though influenced much by Nolan, plans to infiltrate the workers and slowly incite the group to organize a work-stop, one he knows will lead to extreme measures. They succeed in getting many to make camp and hold Bolton accountable, electing London (Vincent D’Onofrio) as their leader, though that itself is a manipulation of sorts by Mac.
When Bolton sends in ‘scabs’ to do the work instead, Mac emboldens hundreds of workers to rise up and get them to join instead. When armed enforcers use violence to stop them, it only fuels the pickers to action. Now, as the gambit begins, and the weeks pass, the people face their biggest challenges yet as they strive to shape change for future generations.
Directed by Franco, and adapted from the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, In Dubious Battle is an epic film in size, filled with an ensemble cast of some impressive names in a story that has several good moments as it attempts to give some history and background to the cause of Steinbeck’s passion. Often feeling like a filmed stage-play, the movie is surprisingly slow-paced and quiet, punctuated by a few energized sequences that wedge in some tension. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to John Sayle‘s Matewan (1987), but Franco’s film is, despite its attention to detail and obvious dedication to the source material, an uneven experience lifted by some good performances.
Those performances include strong work by Ed Harris in a small part as a rebel who has seen the very worst in those who hold power over the workers and Sam Shepard as a landowner who allows the strikers to set up on his farm, though D’Onofrio and Wollf come off best, though Wolff is better in the personal exchanges rather than in ones where he is attempting to lead a mob. Selena Gomez shows up as a new mother trying to make ends meets, but is stiff in the part. Franco too is not always right, unable to really inspire momentum as the well-intentioned but morally-questionable Mac. He sometimes over does it and never truly convinces. His direction fares a little better, capturing the era well and generating some good moments, especially in scenes that pit the workers against rising forces trying to put them down, not afraid to use deadly violence.
The real problem though is the way he crafts the story, which lacks cohesion as scenes unfold and close with no real sense of connection, many ending awkwardly and abruptly or just fading to the next. It’s not helped by some poor dialogue that breaks authenticity, despite some strong moments that occasionally lift it to where its potential promises, but as the film reaches higher and higher for poignancy, each practically begging for Oscar nods, it grows more and more obvious.
In Dubious Battle is a curious film, one that tells a story that is well worth knowing, and is told by a terrific cast yet is formulaic throughout, unable to really inspire, especially in its contrived ending. Tonally off balance and never fully engaging, it is nonetheless an ambitious work that feels made with genuine effort. It just never finds its footing.
Movie description: In Dubious Battle is a 2017 drama about a pair of farm hands in California in the 1930s who get involved in a labor movement to protect worker's rights.
Director(s): James Franco
Actor(s): Nat Wolff, James Franco, Vincent D'Onofrio, Selena Gomez