Sunday, July 27, 2008

I Love the Work of Jennifer Jason Leigh: Rush

I've written this before in my blog: I almost never watch a movie for escape. I almost always watch movies to learn more about the nature of human nature and the nature of the human condition. It's what I enjoy in movies, much like what I enjoy in poetry, plays, and books. I look elsewhere for escape.

A friend who knows I'm this way emailed me the other day and highly recommended that I see "The Dark Knight". He experienced it as more than an escapist movie. I think I'll give it a go.

One of the rewards of not watching movies for escape is that I have the pleasure of seeing a lot of a lot of middle-aged and older women act in serious roles, usually in independent movies. In other words, these great actors are not being cast in many high budget escapist movies, but are more likely to be found in movies way under the radar of popularity.

I can't really say who my favorite middle-aged woman actor is: Joan Allen? Patricia Clarkson? Catherine Keener? Marcia Gay Harden? Helen Mirren? Laura Linney? Maria Bello? Holly Hunter? Bebe Neuwirth? Sigourney Weaver? Susan Sarandon? Nicole Kidman is approaching middle age. I enjoy her more, the older she becomes.

Recently, I've thrown myself into movies featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh, either in starring or supporting roles. I love her work.

I love the way Jennifer Jason Leigh can so occupy, fully embody, inhabit a character, and animate the multiple dimensions of that character's intelligence and emotion, the character's deep, often despicable flaws juxtaposed with, often seen in the same moment as, features that evoke sympathy, even love.

When Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a role, in each moment with a facial wrinkle or a lifted fist or a lift in her voice she unfolds another facet of the character. She augments the character's emotional and physical make up or she adds depth to a dimension we've already seen.

I love our first view of Jennifer Jason Leigh's character Kristen in "Rush". She's running a race at the police academy. The wrists of her chugging arms come nearly to her eyes. It's not a lesbian-erotic Mariel Hemingway run from "Personal Best" or a hetero-fantasy moment with Bo Derek from "10". Kristen is all determination, pushing to advance in the academy, to compete with and beat the men, which she does.

Kristen's performance wins her an undercover assignment with Jim Raynor (Jason Patric) to bust a local drug dealer (played by Gregg Allman).

For all of her strength and determination, Kristen is over her head in this assignment and it's this portrayal of being at once determined and over her head that makes Jennifer Jason Leigh's performace so riveting.

Being overwhelmed makes Kristen vulnerable to love, lust, and drugs, to letting the rush of feelings she has in certain moments supplant her rational and regimented police training.

The runner who looked so indomitable at the beginning of the movie is also fragile. She's powerful and delicate, both physically and emotionally, and within this dichotomy are any number of shades of confidence, doubt, fear, courage, resistance, rage, failure, surrender, loneliness, success, and, most of all longing.

Kristen longs for justice. She longs to be an accomplished police officer. She wants to get the bad guys.

She also longs for companionship and intimacy in an assignment that demands that she be tough and detached.

It's these longings, whether professional or of the soul and body, that Jennifer Jason Leigh embodies and that make "Rush" more than a drug bust movie.

It's a story of deep human need, of temptation, of succumbing to it. It portrays how Kristen's longings are deeper than she knows and that while she is in over her head in her police work, it's really the depths of her own longings that she's the most unprepared for.

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