It’s hard to beat Elmore Leonard. He’s a master of trenchant dialogue and conflicted bad/good guys. Whenever the mass media gets hold of someone like Leonard, though, it makes you nervous. Hollywood certainly made a mess of Get Shorty. So even though he is an executive producer on this new FX Network series, some of us wondered how many shortcuts Justified would take. Would they try to make the dialogue cute instead of potent? Would they film it in Hollywood and entirely lose the flavor of Harlan, KY, where the stories on which it is based are set? Not to worry.
The pilot episode opens with a scene between the U.S. Marshall and his prey, a nicely craven killer whom he has given twenty-four hours to get out of Miami. The dialogue and the situation are straight out of the old John Houston west, but also perfectly modern. The killer is down to his last few minutes. He tries to get the Marshall to break bread with him–communion will make for forgiveness? The Marshall keeps counting. He pleads that he’s unarmed. The Marshall keeps counting. and counting. You can guess how the scene ends.
Though the shooting is “justified,” it’s a bit beyond P.C., which earns the Marshall a ticket out of Miami and back to the East KY hills where he was born. To avoid the publicity. A bit of cliche, that, but the show makes it work.
Here, our marshall meets up with some old buddies-become-skinheads with whom he once labored in the coal mines. Complications and conflicts ensue with plenty of tension and psychology all the way along. I was glad to see an actor whose name I don’t recall from The Shield in the series. Missed him. Too bad he didn’t last out this episode.
The environment is definitely not Hollywood. If Justified was not shot in KY, it was definitely the southeast. Lots of vegetation, two-lane roads with no shoulders, many house trailers and other signs of rural poverty. The accents are close enough–this according to my KY-born wife who has a great ear and a great contempt for phony southern accents. KY accents aren’t exactly what most people think of as “southern.” Lots of movies have Kentuckians sounding more like Georgians, though they really sound like neither. My late father-in-law used to talk about how difficult his accent was for people to pinpoint when he did his WWII stint in the army.
I think the series did well by Elmore, and I’m glad to see it. Not only for him but because so seldom does good literature survive a trip to Hollywood that it’s an event worth celebrating.