Like the sprawling hills of Ohio; Hillbilly Elegy is a beautiful looking film with equally as tantalizing performances. But behind this classically southern setting lies problems, a lot of problems. Directed by Ron Howard, Hillbilly Elegy has little excuse for being as incomprehensible as it — from his work on humanistic stories like A Beautiful Mind (2001) to true story narratives like Rush (2013), Howard is no stranger to adapting content into functioning films that just work. But even the best of us stumble and that’s what looks like has happened here.
Alas, here we are. Hillbilly Elegy is a film telling a scattered story – literally, the vast majority of the story is told out of sequence, why? Well, perhaps as a way to familiarize us with the full scope of these characters live. In Hillbilly Elegy we see the lead character Vance (Gabriel Basso) grow up and escape his problematic life in Middletown Ohio — he goes to college and seems to be doing quite well for himself; only to be thrusted back into his old life to deal with his heroin addicted mother (Amy Adams).
Now, it’s important to note that within that brief synopsis I just provided we get countless scenes of Vance’s childhood, teenage life, and other “snapshot” moments throughout his own life, as well as his mothers and grandmothers. The result? A whole bunch of scenes put together in no apparent order culminating in what could only be described as a “bad trip”. Despite its mess it’s not entirely absent of meaningful moments — Amy Adams provides an energetic performance as an unstable mother with a heroin addiction and manages to portray the destructive and heartbreaking effects that this drug has on families. Glenn Close follows toe to toe with Adams, providing a more scaled down performance that isn’t short of intricacy either.
Drunken and incomprehensible structure aside, Hillbilly Elegy is plagued with a plethora of issues; namely the fact that there is little to no real emotional stakes we attain from these characters, nor is there payoff, or even a meaningful message that we were left with. This is by all accounts quite a vacant film. An argument could be made that there wasn’t much material for Ron Howard to build on or perhaps the format of this memoir is not conducive for adaptation. Ultimately I believe that the content, the format, and the creative were all part of the problem here. If you’ve got an itching for a genuinely moving film with southern characters in a southern setting then give Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) a try.
With all that said, I still can’t entirely hate this film. Primarily due to its performances but also partially because of its visuals; even if Ron Howard and his DoP clearly aren’t ticking every conceivable visual box, most of this film is very pleasing to the eye. The lighting is incredibly naturalistic which brings out the authenticity of the environment, which subtly absorbs you into the moment. There are often times where a sequence is almost shot like a documentary, in an attempt to recreate the real-life footage surrounding this family.
Ron Howard and his technical team do an excellent job at absorbing the audience in Middletown, Ohio and the social problems that exist in that community. Hans Zimmer & David Fleming helm the composition for this film and ultimately disappoint when attempting to elevate emotion or intensity in scenes. The composers attempt at replicating the music of Kentucky to reinforce the family origin.
It’s surprising that Howard so greatly misjudged this adaptation; seeing Howard make such a rare misstep must surely be a testament to his ability in adaptation. This is a film with powerhouse performances and absolutely no structure or message behind it – a forgettable experience by talented people, packaged in a beautiful container with no substance. How many ways can I truly frame it? This film gives and takes.