The Failure of “Hillbilly Elegy” in Comparison to “Justified” and “Rectify”

Spoiler alert.

I wanted to like Hillbilly Elegy. I have not read the book, but knew it was a New York Times bestseller and I ‘d also heard an interesting radio interview with the author, J.D. Vance. In addition, I typically love Ron Howard’s movies and, of course, when you have Glenn Close and Amy Adams together in a movie, how could you lose?

I went in with a purely open-mind, ready to be swept up in the story of a poor boy from Appalachia somehow managing to make his way to Yale Law, bringing honor to his family and hope to all the rest of us who still want to believe in the American Dream. However, after the shock wore off of seeing Glenn Close authentically look like many other grandmothers hailing from areas of the country where poverty prevails, I found the story’s credibility start to falter.

Amy Adams’s character, starts off being a strong supporter for her son, J.D., and then shortly after reveals her mercurial mood swings. She goes from warm to terrifying cold with little warning and this pattern relentlessly repeats itself over and over in the film. Rather than getting to know her character and coming to understand who and how she is, the viewer learns about 2/3s through that her early life wasn’t good. In all due respect, this is hardly a revelation since the whole family has shown its dysfunction from the get-go. Also, while some aspects of addiction are well-portrayed, the overall codependent nature of the family is underdeveloped. In addition, there are few to none endearing moments when the family demonstrates its love for one another. The one exception is the sweet relationship with J.D. and his sister, which felt real and was also a moment of respite in an otherwise dreary tale.

My overall beef with this story is the lack of nuance. While the characters all have lives that could have been more deeply mined for meaning and clarity, the “drama” of a raging substance abuser takes center stage and allows no space for subtlety or reflection. After watching this movie, I couldn’t begin to imagine why J.D. would elect to move himself and his new loving wife nearer to his family. The fact that his mother has remained sober for six years is wonderful to hear; however, because her character was painted with such a broad brush, the movie doesn’t do a good job of making us care.

I must also admit that I am jaded by two series on television that have done a superlative job of exploring multigenerational dysfunction in a Southern setting. Justified is an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story and features one of the best villains on television, Boyd Crowder, played by Walter Goggins, who eats up the screen with his authenticity. His arch-enemy (and former friend) U.S Marshall Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, is the perfect counterpoint in this series that forces the viewer to consider what a lawman and an outlaw’s life in rural Kentucky might actually look like.

In contrast, Rectify, explores what can happen when a man, falsely convicted for raping and killing his girlfriend, is released from prison after 19 years on death row . The main character, played superbly by Aden Young, is both complicated and conflicted. His family, who live in a small town in Georgia, is comprised of deeply flawed but loving people who are grappling with an event that has shattered all of their lives. This series ranks as my absolute favorite (and yes, that includes Games of Thrones, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad) because of its willingness to take a deep dive into each of the main characters without once venturing into stereotypes. These people could be any of us at any moment if such a horrific accusation upended our lives.

So, if you want to see some truly excellent depictions of people in the South living hard but relatable lives, I’d recommend skipping Hillbilly Elegy and searching out these exemplary series instead. You will definitely be entertained, and might also lose a few misconceptions about the lack of complexity of rural Southern folks.


14 Comments Add yours

  1. Teresa Lynn says:

    I’ll have to check out those two series.

    Keep in mind that series have much more time to develop characters, thus more time for nuance. My husband’s family is from Appalachia, and we found Hilllbilly Elegy disturbingly realistic.

    I do agree that the mother’s abuse took over the movie; overall it seemed more about dealing with her and less about HOW the son overcame all he did. We see him “there” and we see him “here” — I would have liked to see more of his personal journey from there to here.

    1. Hi Teresa, Yes, I think it was “disturbingly realistic.” I agree completely. The problem for me was not the realism but rather the lack of character development. And, yes, that is the beauty of series. They do have the luxury of going deep. However, as my husband said when we discussed your comment, “But even a short poem can go deep in just a few lines.” I think that was my problem. There was no reflection from any of the characters. Just a “that’s mama,” which is fine and realistic, but someone needed to move to a deeper level for the story to deliver more clarity and emotional heft related to addiction. And I too think that if J.D.’s story could have been highlighted more, then we might have had more of a window into his thoughts and how he was processing his family’s dynamic. Thanks for your comments. They were thought-provoking.

  2. Mary Jo Doig says:

    I’ve read Hillbilly Elegy, Len, and now look forward to seeing these two stories. I appreciate your assessment!

    1. I hear the book was much better than the movie, Mary Jo. Did you like it?

      1. Mary Jo Doig says:

        Yes, I liked the book a lot and identified with much of it. I didn’t pick up on poor character development but perhaps the book was better in that respect. Or not. I didn’t see the movie and now probably won’t. I look forward to the two series. Mary Jo Doig, author  Facilitator of Women’s Life-Writing & OWL  Just released: Patchwork: A Memoir of Love and Loss


  3. Jeanne Guy says:

    Wow! Boy, you nailed it. We watched it Thursday night and were exhausted. While there was much to appreciate, the structure of the storyline was lacking with ill-defined transitions in my humble opinion. We’ll be tuning in to the Rectify series you referenced.

  4. Jeanne Guy says:

    Wow! Boy, you nailed it. We watched it Thursday night and were exhausted. While there was much to appreciate, the structure of the storyline was lacking with ill-defined transitions in my humble opinion. We’ll be tuning in to the Rectify series you referenced. Thanks, Len.

    1. Thanks, Jeanne. Yes, Ray wanted to turn it off about halfway through, but I wanted to see what happened. Yes, I think you’re right about the structure of the storyline. A bit of reflection between those shifts might have added a lot to making viewers care about these characters.

  5. lgood67334 says:

    After I see it, I’ll know whether I agree or not. This is a clearly thought-out review. I hope Glenn Close will be a redeeming factor.

  6. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts after you see it, Lynn. Both Amy Adams and Glenn Close are very good, but they give Amy too much to do (and no reflection time) and Glenn Close too little (and only the tiniest reflection time). The script is the problem, not them.

  7. I read your comments about “Hillbilly Elegy” last night.I wished that I could have read those comments before investing two hours watching before giving up to go clean the kitchen.

  8. Yes, Ray wanted to stop watching too. I stayed with it, hoping I’d see something that made that time investment worth it. Sadly, I didn’t.

  9. Thank you, Mary Jo. Quite interesting!

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