In Flannery O’Connor’s seminal lecture Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction she uses the expression “Christ-haunted” to describe the South. Since first reading this, I have been haunted by this idea of Christ-hauntedness. She goes on to say that the Southerner “who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.” For the unbeliever, this divine umbra can leap out at any moment and confront him with disastrous truths; you were made, He reigns on high, your life will never be the same. Southern filmmakers no less than Southern writers -if I may hazard a generality- are apt to cast the strange shadows and derelict numinosity of Christendom.
Junebug is a Southern Gothic Drama about Madeline, an exotically educated art dealer in Chicago, who travels to North Carolina with her husband George to woo an artist and meet her in-laws. The meeting with the artist goes well, but her success runs dry as she encounters the pride and prejudice of her husband’s family.
Peg, George’s mother, who might be indelicately described as a battle ax in a broom closet, does not take a shining to Madeline. Put off by Madeline’s skinniness, Peg doesn’t even need to hear the British accent before turning the cold shoulder to her. At the end of the film the most she can muster toward her is that “she’s got beautiful hands,” which is a dig on her inability to work with them. Eugene, the father, is pleasantly anonymous and stands up for Madeline only so far.
The chief wound to the family is George’s brother, Johnny. Unhappily married to his highschool sweetheart, unhappily forced to move back in with his parents, unhappily compared to his brighter, better looking brother, Johnny labors mightily to show how nonplussed he is by his brother’s success and beautiful wife. He carries his old wounds and bitter jealousies as badly as the moustache on his face.
Madeline blunders through the various familial landmines, unaccustomed to the fine Southern tradition of letting sleeping grudges lie. If not for Johnny’s resplendently pregnant wife Ashley (the Oscar nominated role of Amy Adams), Madeline would have no allies at all since even George abandons her to the pitfalls. Ashley declares her love for immediately and demonstrates it by taking the blame for a knickknack accidentally broken by Madeline. She is determined to not only win over the family for Madeline, but to win Madeline as her bestest friend along the way.
The director Phil Morrison provides an accurate picture of the South without the overweening grit and buttery oddness that mars most Hollywood films set in the South. Without belaboring accents or belittling the side characters, he pegs his setting with an array of well-wrought details; like a man in his workshop humming to let the bickerers upstairs know he can hear them, like the endless and aimless tinkering with a vehicle, like a wife needling and maneuvering her husband to “say something” but never overstepping her bounds or disrespecting his authority.
The story is about outsiders. Madeline is the initial outsider. She’s the agnostic, Japan born daughter of an English diplomat dropped into a fiercely southern Christian family. The artist she hopes to sign is David Wark, an outsider (a term for untrained artists) who paints violent, racially charged, Civil War themed battle scenes with soldiers shooting bullets out of their prodigiously large sexual organs. Above the carnage are banners with scripture that has been mediated to him by an angel only he can hear.
Johnny is an outsider in his own family. He is shown happy only at work where he jokes and laughs and talks about football. At home he broods, and barks at his wife, killing the day smoking and watching television. At some point the status of outsider is born by every character.
Throughout the film the camera has withdrawn from the action to fall into vacant rooms. We hear the sounds of fun or fighting, we hear life through the walls, along the outside, as though there’s a presence, a haunting. In these moments there’s a yearning to return. These regressions into an absence is like an invitation. Return. At the center of the film is a song that speaks to this very thing. At the potluck George is asked by the minister if he will sing for them. George takes up a hymnal and begins an a cappella rendition of Jesus is Calling.
Come home! come home!
Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
The viewer is constantly called somewhere and here in the middle of this film Jesus is calling, “Come home, O sinner.”
Peg’s eyes water, singing along, Madeline marvels at this unseen side of her husband. It is clear that George has not mentioned to her whatever shred of faith he still bears. She skips church. At the potluck when the pastor prays over the family she observes the bowed heads with a mixture of interest and discomfort. When she finds Eugene’s lost screwdriver and he mentions that he’d done some screwing in that room, she laughs assuming a crude pun. She is an outsider in every way.
Crisis comes for Madeline when she finds out that someone is trying to poach her artist and Ashley goes into labor. Madeline must choose between family or her career, to join the family or reaffirm her outside status.
The same is true of Johnny, to whom she is implicitly compared throughout the film. It may seem odd that the successful, brilliant and beautiful woman is mirrored in the sullen, stupid and insecure Johnny, but the connection to him comes in realizing that of everyone in the house only they fail to create. George is self-made wunderlad, Eugene is a woodworker, Peg has her crafts and sewing and then there are the two uber-creators David Wark and the pregnant Ashley. Madeline, as an art-dealer, and Johnny, who works in the shipping of a store called Replacements Ltd, trade the work of others, contributing nothing.
The question of Madeline’s fertility comes up numerous times; they sleep in what will become the baby’s room, between cradle and crib, they make love night after night, but it is clear that she’s not interested in having children. In a movie titled after the chosen name of Ashley’s unborn child, the act of creation through children is key.
The reversals come fast at the end. What has looked like a totally fractured family at the end is renewed, and it is Madeline and George whose fairytale romance is at crossroads. The honeymoon is over, after six months of sex and swooning they have hit their first rough patch. George confesses to his mother that his wife will “discover all [his] faults soon or later.” Ashley’s counsel to her husband holds true for everyone in the film, “God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay that way.” This call is stretched out over the whole film and the characters divide into those who will attempt to change and those who will remain locked in their prejudices. The trajectory for George and Madeline seems ominous. As they leave the Christ-haunted South the spell wanes and George says “I’m so glad to be out of there.”