Jason Bateman shines as antihero in Netflix’s Ozark

Ozark
Ever since Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Walter White and a cavalcade of other memorable characters have graced our TV sets, Hollywood has been dead set on creating new anti-heroes for us to root for (and sometimes against). After all, it’s one thing to cheer for superheroes on the big screen as they take on Big Bads to save the universe. But on TV, we like our heroes to be flawed, complex, even, dare we say, a little bit evil. It’s why we forgave Heisenberg for all of his flaws, even as he continued to let his ego overtake his love of family. But to create a compelling protagonist with enough depth of character to captivate an audience is no easy task. It requires an engaging story, a compelling narrative push, and a credible actor that make us sympathize with a character, even as we sometimes hate them. Fortunately for Netflix, they’ve found all three in their latest original series, Ozark.

Ozark follows the life of Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), a seemingly straight-laced financial planner from Chicago, his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and two teenage kids as they battle the seemingly mundane problems of a normal upper middle-class family. Of course, 10 episodes about whether their son is making friends in high school or whether their daughter needs money to donate to a friend’s charity would get old pretty fast. The action quickly cuts over to a construction site, where we learn that in addition to his financial planning day job, he also has an extracurricular activity of laundering money for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico. His partners have been caught skimming money and will have to pay for their greed with their lives. But the always quick thinking Marty convinces the cartel’s Chicago liaison, Del (Esai Morales), that he can make more money by allowing Marty to move down to the Ozarks and launder their money in that resort town.

Although skeptical of Marty’s motives, Del allows him to take his family down to the Ozarks to wash eight million dollars of drug money for 3 months in exchange for his life. Of course, such a task is far easier said than done. Especially when contending with a diverse cast of hillbillies and rednecks. Chief among these Ozark natives are the trailer trash Langmore family, putatively overseen by nineteen-year-old Ruth (Julia Garner), who is the brains of the family while her father is in prison for unspecified crimes. Ruth quickly gets onto Marty’s radar when she attempts to steal his money, and the pair begins a tenuous partnership of convenience. Ruth uses her breaking-and-entering skills to help Marty get certain items he needs, while Marty begins to bring Ruth into his money laundering universe.

Marty’s activities put him on the radar of a longtime Ozark family, the Snells, led by patriarch Jacob (Peter Mullan). This seemingly homespun family actually uses their farmland to make poppies, which they sell at the local farmer’s market. Oh, and also, to make heroin. Of course, all that ill gotten drug money also needs to be laundered, which puts them on the same path as Marty as well. Marty is also pursued by FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), who assumes a false identity in the Ozarks in hopes of catching Marty in the act.

Bateman may be best known as the put upon son in one of television’s most critically beloved comedies, Arrested Development. But he definitely shows a darker side in Ozark. His character is by no means evil, but he definitely hews slightly away from good. And for all of his talk about doing everything for his family, there is an underlying sense of selfishness and ego that seems to permeate everything he does. We want Bateman to get out of every jam he faces, but at the same time, we can’t go so far as to completely hope he gets off scot-free.

Linney is also fantastic in her role here as Marty’s wife and co-conspirator. In a nice change of pace, her character is not some vapid trophy wife that doesn’t know the truth. Rather, we find outright from the start that Wendy is not only aware of Bateman’s illicit activities, but in fact encouraged it. And in another “twist”, rather than create a storyline that has the couple hiding the fact that Marty is a money launderer from their two kids, Wendy tells them the whole story right from the start. The whole family is in it together, for better or worse.

The supporting cast in Ozark is incredibly strong from top to bottom. Morales brings a quiet menace to his role as the cartel’s enforcer. His voice rarely hits an octave higher than a low growl, and yet every word drips with such danger that you can’t help but assume someone is going to die when he is on the screen. And Garner is absolutely fantastic as the criminal prodigy, Ruth. She is clearly a character who wants to achieve something better for herself and her redneck family, yet doesn’t quite have all the tools to escape. She is wise beyond her years, as evidenced by the instant obedience of her entire family to all of her plans. She has been forced to be a mother to her cousins as well as her adult uncles but is ill equipped to handle all the chaos that enters her life once Marty arrives.

The first season definitely spends some time building the Ozark universe, adding additional characters that enter Marty’s orbit, and who will surely become more integral as the series progresses (the show has already been renewed for season 2). And in fact, one of the most fascinating parts of the show is how it has somehow already created such a large cast of supporting characters to follow. And every character has multiple layers to them, allowing the show to slowly reveal their motives and desires over the course of the series.

Ozark is definitely not a light-hearted or easy show to watch. The violence can sometimes be jarring, and the characters are not necessarily people you’d ever want to grab a beer with. But Bateman and company have done an outstanding job of creating characters that we can’t help but want to follow. Even if we’re not sure exactly who we want to win.

Rating: 4.5/5 Atoms

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Brian Chu
Brian Chu 221 posts

Brian Chu is a Staff Writer for Nerd Reactor and aspiring Jeopardy contestant. He thinks Picard is the best captain, Cumberbatch is the best Holmes, Bale is the best Batman, and Tennant is the best Doctor. Follow him @chumeister