The legend "That Afternoon" appears onscreen, and then we see a car hurtle past us on a lonely desert road, hotly pursued by two Arizona Highway Patrol units. Behind the wheel, our hero Wade (Drew Pillsbury) sits with a stricken look on his face, plainly baffled at how he's gotten into this mess.
So begins, with a flash-forward to the end, the low-budget indie drama Jerome. This description -- combined with the slug line "He had a dream. She had a gun." from the ad art -- may make you sigh in anticipation of one more Tarantino crime film knockoff, this one very belated, full of the usual lame attempts at black humor, the sophomorically pessimistic "irony," the pop-allusion-stuffed dialogue without the leavening wit. That's what I was braced for, and was delighted to be wrong. Small, but polished and confident, Jerome is a real find -- a no-kidding, unapologetic tragedy that manages to explore working-class alienation without either whining or posing.
The title is a place name, and it has the same meaning here that Brazil had in Terry Gilliam's Brazil or Bountiful, Texas, did in The Trip to Bountiful -- it's a symbol of freedom to the hero. Wade, who we later learn is married and has a son, works as a welder in a cacophonous plant in Bakersfield, California. But he's also a frustrated metal sculptor, and he's learned of the existence of the tiny artists' colony of Jerome, in the Mingus Mountains of northern Arizona. Fed up with his job, he walks out of the plant, steals a car when his own won't start and heads for Jerome.
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It need hardly be said that he meets a woman, a hitchhiker named Jane (Wendie Malick). This life-battered but not unfriendly woman tells Wade, without being asked, that she has a gun in her purse. She isn't sticking him up, she's just sharing the information. In spite of this ominous fact, when he drops her off at a bar, Wade agrees to stop and have a beer with her. We already know, from the opening scene, that the trip to Jerome won't be smooth. By the time the two have formed a tentative emotional bond, we can be pretty sure that the contents of Jane's purse will have something to do with this.
In description, again, all this probably sounds pretty routine, like we're headed for the usual, tiresome noir subtext -- that dames screw up everything. But Jerome, though it does eventually take a turn into both sex and into unexpected but perfectly plausible bloodshed, isn't really noir at all. Thomas Johnston, David Elton and Eric Tignini, the trio who shares credit for writing, directing, producing and editing, aren't principally concerned with the glamour of seduction and deception, or with any kind of glamour. The film is closer in tone to the fatalistic counterculture road movies of the late '60s and early '70s, like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point and, of course, Easy Rider, but without the pretensions to mystical profundity. Its theme is the very real pain and peril that working-class people can risk by playing hooky from their lives. Wade is a victim, to be sure, but what makes the film interesting and touching is that Jane isn't a femme fatale. This strange drifter is a victim, too.
Malick is the brittle comedienne who clowns so elegantly on the sitcom Just Shoot Me (Jerome was executive-produced by comic David Spade, her co-star on that show), and she acquits herself well in this very different role. The real star, however, is Pillsbury, a TV actor whose stoic, low-key performance accumulates a powerful empathic charge by the end of the film.
The dialogue is terse without lapsing into laconic self-parody, and the film is impressively shot by cinematographer Gina DeGirolamo, and smoothly and fluidly edited. Johnston, Elton and Tignini employ the device of intercutting talking-head interviews of Wade's family and friends, tut-tutting about how this could have happened, which inexpensively gives the film a larger-scale feel than it really has. But what really makes Jerome feel so fresh is simply that it's so heartfelt, so sad. When Wade falls to his knees weeping in a rest stop parking lot near the end, it's truly harrowing. After years of watching indie-movie characters I wasn't supposed to care about -- and usually didn't -- kill each other in ways I was supposed to find funny -- and sometimes did -- I was caught off guard when the simple, direct, unsentimental Jerome asked me to feel.