As readers, the thing we treasure most about a new Elmore Leonard novel is his uncanny ear for dialogue. However, in Leonard's case as a writer, in order to deliver unto us a character whose lines we can almost hear in our mind, the thing he treasures the most is finding the right name for the speaker.
Give a character a wrong name and “he might not talk when he's supposed to,” Leonard shared on his website, revealing that from the moment he met a man in Texas named Raylan, he knew he'd discovered the name of what he envisioned to be a soft-spoken US Marshall comfortable enough to give Leonard everything he'd need to know to fill page after page.
Although he's compulsively clad in the same type of cowboy hat worn by the officers that surrounded Lee Harvey Oswald at the time of his murder as referenced in the first Raylan Givens novel Pronto, unlike some of the swaggering antiheroes Leonard has created in more than forty books, he knew right after he met the real-life unassuming Raylan that if Raylan Givens ever “pulled his sidearm, he’d use it."
And in a brilliant scripted move offering both characterization and a sly wink to those in league with Leonard's literature that TV's newest take on Dutch was truly going to walk the talk, Raylan's sidearm sentiment is referenced right in the pilot as Timothy Olyphant's effortlessly cool Raylan Givens warns a criminal that he'll only pull that gun if he's going to kill since that's its purpose after all.
As a veteran of intelligent, multi-layered ensemble pieces such as the underrated Rashomon inspired masterpiece Boomtown, screenwriter and series creator Graham Yost delivers a pitch-perfect adaptation of Leonard's Raylan-centric short story Fire in the Hole, in the first episode of Justified, which easily establishes the bar for the writing staff’s mission to do “what Elmore would do.”
Although they admittedly draw heavily on Fire to craft the overall basis for the series including the main characters, primary and secondary conflicts and overall tone, commendably in their goal to make Justified a bona fide Elmore Leonard series, the writers dig deeper than just culling from the two other Raylan novels of Pronto and Riding the Rap.
Picking up on the humor others who have adapted Leonard badly have missed, Yost and his talented team including at least one veteran of the unfairly short-lived Out of Sight Leonard TV spin-off Karen Sisco explore the master’s entire body of work from his earliest western stories including Hombre and 3:10 to Yuma up through Leonard’s contemporary crime novels.
And the result is evident right from the start of Justified as avid readers of Leonard will be thrilled by the series’ embrace of his distinctive flair for seasoning any given situation with at least three competing reactions from fear to awe to laughter, which occur simultaneously in genre-blind sequences that take us from suspense to the old west.
Anchored by the immediately charismatic performances of the ensemble cast, headed up by the superlative Olyphant, we find U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens forcibly reassigned from his post in Miami back to his rundown, drug-run hometown of Harlan, Kentucky upon shooting a drug cartel assassin in cold blood in the harsh light of day after giving him twenty-four hours to leave town.
And admittedly, it's a cowboy move that some could've easily overplayed but perhaps because Olyphant is more than just a bit familiar in playing a lawman in the old west given his work on HBO's Peabody award-winning Deadwood, he pulls it off with a style all his own.
Although the killing was a justified one to Raylan since the deceased had a weapon and was in the midst of a quick draw when Raylan’s bullet struck him faster than the man could flick his trigger finger, it’s an overall preview of the morally and legally ambiguous situations our marshal will find himself in upon returning to the town he swore he’d never set foot in again.
Breaking the same Harlan, Kentucky promise it seems is Raylan’s stunning court reporter ex-wife Winona (Dirty Sexy Money’s MVP Natalie Zea) who hooks her former old man and the audience right along with him when she reveals that the otherwise calm under pressure, always-gets-his-man sexy Marshall we’ve come to admire is in fact ironically “the angriest man” she’s ever known.
Irony has had quite a hand in fueling the anger we so seldom see once we discover the reason he went on the run with rather than from “Johnny law” in the form of his criminal old-man (Raymond J. Barry). And in an interesting flipside to the same sins-of-the-father coin, Raylan is first assigned to arrest former childhood friend turned church bomber Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) who -- unlike the lawman -- followed in the footsteps of his own no-good daddy, Bo (M.C. Gainey).
Without even counting all of the delicious subtext regarding the way the two men struggle with the burdens of their father’s generation on opposite sides of the law – in terms of sheer chemistry and charisma alone – Goggins’ Boyd is the ultimate foil for Olyphant’s Raylan and they visibly elevate one another’s game to the point that we can’t wait for the two to cross paths in the first season.
Needless to say it’s easy to understand why Elmore Leonard was supportive of the show’s decision to change the ending of Fire in the Hole, which would’ve killed Boyd off in episode one. And as the series progresses, their plots and plights become increasingly intertwined in a way that makes this recent release particularly timely in anticipating what’s to happen in the near future.
After one of contemporary television’s most impressive pilots, Justified takes its foot off the gas ever so slightly with a few standalone episodes. Given the sudden rise in Miami-Kentucky tourist trade as hitmen flock to Harlan to shoot that hat right off Raylan’s head, Justified opts to emphasize Raylan’s skill and unorthodox methods as a man in the field, complete with a worrisome tendency to shoot to kill rather than cuff and arrest, which makes for some amusing complications.
Filled with colorful characters that put the one-dimensional cops on most network police procedural series to shame, Justified is at its best when the writers manage to layer in the early episodic style with the crucial development of the increasingly intricate season long arc wherein Raylan’s arrival becomes a catalyst for change.
But while he’s great with a gun, matters of the heart are a different business altogether as he finds himself torn between the torch he carries for Winona and an escalating flirtation with local beauty Ava (Joelle Carter).
Taking on what is arguably the series’ most difficult role, Joelle Carter is luminous as a free-spirited yet unlucky in love headstrong woman. Despite having recently shot her abusive husband dead at the dinner table, Carter's Ava sees Raylan’s return as her chance to act on the crush she’d always had on the slightly older man in the hat.
And in beautifully transcending what could’ve easily been a clichéd role as a damsel-in-distress in need of protecting or a white-trash victim, Carter's alternately sexy and sweet Ava is certainly the heart of the series as the actress acknowledges in a behind-the-scenes interview.
However, whether the timing is right for her and the lawman is a different story altogether and one that’s just as hard to pinpoint for Winona and Raylan. Yet just as I hoped that Dirty Sexy Money would be Zea’s star-making turn, I have the same hopes for Carter in Justified as both actresses have an unparalleled knack for believably inhabiting difficult characters and making every move they make -- no matter how frustratingly "unjustified" seem entirely understandable.
Overall, the Blu-ray presentation is Sony perfection with a terrific filmic transfer that captures the contemporary western look of the series along with a sharp high-definition sound transfer. However, the only letdown in an otherwise stellar collection is hiding all of the wonderful content behind an incredibly confusing menu design that uses the same images, titles and listing on every disc, which makes it very easy to lose your place.
An unnecessarily disastrous set-up that would’ve benefited from even a one-sentence description of the episode, a mini-preview or the more logical choice to include only the titles of the shows that will be on each specific disc, it’s nearly impossible to discover where you’ve left off if you’ve ejected a disc in a box set that's hard to navigate.
However, similar to the way that Leonard feels after he's stumbled onto precisely the right name for a new character, once you figure out exactly where you are in Justified, everything clicks into place as you get caught up in Yost's triumphant series that fans of the writer in particular are sure to treasure.
Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.