Jake Paltrow’s latest film Young Ones takes place in a dusty post apocalyptic landscape in which everyone seems to have reverted back to the social codes and conduct of the old West. It’s a striking world filled with gorgeous imagery and ingenious design. Sure, it’s essentially a retreat of George Miller’s Mad Max landscape with an increased budget and infinitely less leather, whips, and chains, but the world Paltrow conjures up has its charms. The filmmakers clearly took their time to imagine, design, and execute the world with undeniably impressive results. So, it’s real shame for everyone involved that a movie has to be more than just art direction, costume design, and cinematography. They nailed those aspects perfectly, but those old pesky chestnuts known as storytelling and characterization were beasts that they could not tame.
Young Ones is a classical Western revenge tale with a retro-future design and a tryptic narrative structure that follows three different protagonists. The star of the first section is Michael Shannon, who at this point an American treasure filmmakers should fight over like rabid dogs for the level of credibility that he seems to be able to lend to every role (the guy even made the somber tone of Man Of Steel palatable at times). Once again, Shannon’s pained, sunken eyes carry the weight of the drama for this opening section. He plays a father struggling to keep his family through a crippling drought. He’s convinced that with a little irrigation his land could be prosperous again, but struggles to cut a deal to make that happen. At the same time, he’s also attempting to transform his dorky son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into a man and protect his daughter (Elle Fanning) from the dangers of the world. Those dangers are personified by Nicholas Hoult, as a classic no-goodnik whose no-goodnik behavior includes theft, lying, and wanting to bed Shannon’s daughter.
It’s all fairly conventional Western stuff with a couple of robots tossed in to spice things up. Shannon manages to keep it alive through the sheer commitment of his performance alone, manufacturing intense pain and drama where there really shouldn’t be any. If he could have carried the entire film, then Paltrow might have been able to sneak Young Ones by with a passing grade. Unfortunately, his tryptic structure depends on McPhee and Hoult leading the second and third acts of the movie, so Shannon can’t carry it all on his own. It’s not that either of the youngsters are particularly bad actors, it’s just that the film is so thin on narrative and characterization that they can’t do very much. It also doesn’t help neither of the former child stars looks like they stepped out of a rugged, harsh landscape like Shannon, and that harms the believability on a visual level alone. After the set up, the movie devolves into a pretty tedious and predictable Western revenge yarn centered on the boys, and just as quickly as Paltrow grabs his audience’s attention, he manages to piss all that good will away.
If you were hoping that the astoundingly talented Fanning might help boost the movie up, you should forget about that right now. Sadly, she’s handed one of the most pathetically underwritten female roles in recent memory and basically exists only to be coveted, protected, owned, or impregnated by one of the men on screen with no story or personality of her own. She still acts really hard, with flowing tears and everything, but with no support, it’s all meaningless.
In a weird way, the manner in which Fanning is wasted speaks to the failings that writer/director Paltrow brought to the film as a whole. He pulled together an impressive world populated with a collection of talented actors, yet he didn’t bother to come up with anything particularly interesting or unique to do with those resources. Even Waterworld managed to reach farther in its post apocalyptic storytelling ambitions that Young Ones, and any time a movie makes me look back fondly on Waterworld, I know something has gone deeply, deeply wrong.
Despite showing considerable promise in its first half hour or so, Young Ones really isn’t worth watching for anyone who values more from a movie than visual design. The flick sure is pretty, but pretty can only really retain viewers’ attentions for the length of a music video. After that, you’d better have some substance to back it up. Hopefully Jake Paltrow will find a little bit of that the next time he steps behind a camera.