Shootin’ in the Holler: A Review of Justified
- Thursday, January 10, 2013
Elmore Leonard is the dean of crime fiction and, having written novels and short stories since the 1950s, has influenced generations of both crime story authors and screenwriters.
Having written over 40 novels and several screenplays that have produced memorable films, such as 3:10 to Yuma, Out of Sight, and Get Shorty, cable television has provided a new home for Leonard's distinctive style of quirky crime stories. Justified just started its second season on FX, typically home to dramas featuring tortured characters and corrupt behavior (The Shield, Nip and Tuck, for example). Justified is not like any other show on television, with it's setting in the badlands of southeast Kentucky, and a hero who recalls the stalwart lawmen of the old west.
Justified follows the character of U. S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, who had appeared in two earlier Leonard novels and his novella, Fire in the Hole which was closely adapted for the pilot. On the rooftop deck of a Miami hotel, Givens tells gangster Tommy Bucks that he has 24 hours to leave town or he'll kill him. Earlier, Raylan had seen Bucks blow another man's head off and he's out to settle the score. Bucks draws first but Raylan is faster.
In an age long past showdowns, this is pretty outrageous conduct and Raylan is transferred to his old stomping grounds of Harlan, Kentucky, the place he'd escaped from when he became a marshal. His new boss, an old colleague Art Mullen, asks him about the shooting. Raylan says that, since Bucks drew first, "It was justified". He fits uneasily in 21st century law enforcement, with his tendency to fall into situations that lead to shoot-outs with criminals.
Announcing his love of the old west by wearing a tan Stetson, the lean Givens reminds us of the gunfighters of old. But this is an Elmore Leonard character and he's no stoic lawman. As played by Timothy Olyphant, Givens is sly, charming and intuitive when on the job. The show's producers, knowing that the best television dramas have multilayered characters, have cultivated the character in the books and by the end of the first episode, we get a glimpse of a more complicated man in the ten-gallon hat.
Visiting Winona, his ex-wife, Raylan admits that he's not sure what he would have done if Tommy Bucks hadn't pulled his gun first. "But what troubles me is, what if he hadn't? What if he just sat there and let the clock run out and I killed him anyway? I know I wanted to. I guess I just never thought of myself as an angry man." Winona smiles knowingly, and, to his dismay says "Raylan, you do a good job of hiding it. And I suppose most folks don't see it, but honestly, you're the angriest man I have ever known." This is the first hint that Raylan, a straight shooter in many ways, has some issues. This would include a father who is a first class scoundrel and is partly responsible for Raylan going into law enforcement.
Getting re-immersed in the Harlan community, Raylan has known a lot of these hill country miscreants since childhood, having grown up in the mining community and even dug coal with Boyd Crowder, the racist bankrobber he outdraws while sitting at a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Boyd survives, seemingly because dead-shot Raylan chose not to kill him, recalling their youthful days in the coalmines.
The ensuing episodes develop the criminal underworld of rural Kentucky and Raylan's work with the Marshal's office. Throughout the first half of the 13-episode season, there is a parade of small-time schemers, loan sharks and violent thugs, all speaking in Elmore Leonard's singular style, who has said repeatedly that no one has better captured his leanly constructed crime stories. Producer Graham Yost gave copies of Leonard's books to his writers so that would learn his style and match his writing voice. The result is some of the best crime drama dialogue on television in years.
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