Director-star James Franco couldn’t have found a more fertile moment than this season of protest to unveil his film about impoverished apple pickers organizing to fight brutal wage cuts in fictional Torgas Valley, Central California.
Based on the 1936 John Steinbeck novel by Matt Rager, whose two William Faulkner adaptations were directed by Franco, In Dubious Battle proves a well-meaning muddle. It’s also too strident to bear comparison with such potent labor agitation films as John Ford’s Steinbeck classic The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and John Sayles’s Matewan (1987).
Yet it’s one of those flawed films you watch for its formidable cast. Though dominated by Franco and Nat Wolff as former Communist agitator Mac McLeod and his maturing protegé Jim Nolan, actors like Ed Harris (as a much-beaten old “Wobbly”), Sam Shepard (as a decent landowner), Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Duvall, Bryan Cranston, and John Savage enrich the tense, lowering atmosphere.
The actresses Selina Gomez, Ahna O’Reilly, and Analeigh Tipton ground the story of a desperate endeavor consistently betrayed by male arrogance, aggression, and hatred. Ashley Greene is unpleasantly captivating in the pivotal role of a vicious seductress working for her father (Duvall), the venal landowner fought by the strikers.
Hired by her Spring Breakers co-star Franco, Gomez makes a curious impression in a role greatly expanded from the novel. Cast as Lisa London, the widowed daughter of the apple picker (D’Onofrio) who’s coaxed by Mac and Jim to lead the strike, she’s first seen squeezing out a baby in insanitary conditions.
A quiet, watchful woman, who dreams of finding a husband and living on a small farm, Lisa falls cautiously in love with Jim and he with her. As his passion for the cause makes a man—and almost a monster—of him, she upbraids him for turning “cold.” That word is supplied by Mac, whose drive and charisma are compromised by his unscrupulousness. When he lures Lisa into a kiss, it’s clear he’s preyed on her vulnerability.
A long, long way from the sardonic minx she played in The Wizards of Waverly Place, Gomez gives one of her best performances here. However, if the unofficial face of the Depression is that of Florence Owens Thompson, the anxious mother who appears in Dorothea Lange’s photograph Migrant Worker (1936), Gomez’s couldn’t be less like it. Impossibly luscious, her hair a gloriously dark torrent, her Lisa is healthy, well-fed, and sparklingly clean—a bloom. (This is not to question Thompson’s cleanliness, but there’s no escaping the pall of penury in Lange’s photo.)
While it would have been unnecessary to introduce fleas to Lisa’s clothes, greater effort could have been made to give her an unkempt look. And it’s not as though Lisa is so head-over-heels in love with Jim that all her cares have flown. Gomez makes Lisa’s stoicism admirable—a little dirt and despair would have made her more credible.
In Dubious Battle has been released in theaters and is available on VOD and Digital HD.