Don’t have a particularly piquant reason for catching up with this film at this moment in time, although I am moving to upstate New York later this month, and perhaps no film I can think of evokes the wintry, wilted spirit of that location, at least as it exists in the mind, so there is a certain poetic coincidence in this review.
How rare is it that a film genuinely empathizes with its characters without sweeping them up into the torrential currents of white-water narrative or turning them into pawns in a chessboard game of improvement, actualization, and goal-achievement? Without implicit edicts that their lives are only worth filming if they are in the middle of a personal quest for fulfillment or at the bank to establish a new lease on life? Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort Manchester-by-the-Sea is one, and his debut You Can Count on Me is another, even greater achievement.
Every Lonergan character is a gift to their performer and to humanity, and this film’s two central gifts are adult siblings Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney) and Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo). In the opening scene, a glimpse of their childhood, their parents are killed in a car accident which Lonergan writes and films as a humanistically, animatedly tedious drive-time conversation rather than relying on clever presentiments of the impending tragedy or noir-infused, gravid imagery. In this film thoroughly free of portent or signposting, a few splintered shards – the police officer knocks on the family door and the kids answer, a pastor speaks at a funeral underneath a child’s choir – are enough for Lonergan to establish a sense of consequence that is born, piquantly, out of the ordinary, rather than through a tendentiously dramatic visual or narrative schema that raises these characters or their tragedy on a pedestal or anoints them as totems to The Truth, ambassadors to middle-America and suburban life.
Which is to say: one of the great things about Lonergan’s cinema is that his characters speak only for themselves rather than to any particular issues or types. Brother Terry is a wanderer in arrested development, a boy-child who has recently impregnated his girlfriend who has herself recently attempted suicide. Traveling from Worcester Massachusetts back home to upstate New York, his ruffled, cast-adrift, recklessly unsettled persona (as well as his return to the home he is alienated from) obviously resonates with Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces. (Casey Affleck’s character in Manchester is a similar drifter). But Terry isn’t a symbol to male immaturity, nor is he enough of an emotional or mental plateau to fittingly qualify as a metaphor for anything. Likewise, Sammy, still living in her hometown, could be a Stepford Wife, but she is a bramble of contradictions: religious, a domesticated single mother, a one-time-rager, a secret-smoker, and a woman in the midst of a subcutaneous affair with her boss.
Lonergan’s gifts are in the unstated, in the region of experience that needs no explanation. Why Sammy has any affection for her boss who she constantly butts heads with is left ambiguously unclarified. But she also isn’t judged for it. Neither character’s weights are elevated or demeaned relative to the other. Terry lacks obvious direction, but Sammy is obviously stuck in a directionless stasis as well, and neither character has any moral or philosophical answers for the other; neither is the proverbial other side of the coin or the long-missed second-half of their fractured-Janus-head split-self. They frustrate and complicate and satiate and aid one another, often all in the same moment, but they do not meaningfully complete one another; Lonergan isn’t conceited enough to imply that either characters needs or can easily be “finished”.
That the characters are so unfinished allows the critic to bask in how Terry is at once father, uncle, older brother, partner in crime, and comic foil for Sammy’s son, Rudy, played by Rory Culkin without any precociousness. But the real marker of the characters’ multi-facetedness is their tonal dexterity. Just as Terry serves many roles, he also inhabits many emotional registers. He is a mass of paradoxes – ruminative and principled but spontaneous and immature – but they don’t feel like paradoxes for him. Likewise, when Terry accidentally sprays Sammy with water while working on her house’s plumbing, her one-word reaction, “Thanks”, could settle into either comic reaction-shot or bitter-angry explosion of her internally raging frustration. But Linney plays it as a liminal space between multiple seemingly incompatible feelings that she strings together without ever allowing them to homogenize into one overall, comfortable register. We aren’t playing a suspense-game here, holding our mouth as we wait to see how the characters react; chances are, their reaction won’t even fit into our presumed spectrums for reactive possibilities to begin with.
If it goes without saying, Linney and Ruffalo are brilliant in their respective roles, primarily when they interact, harnessing fictitious years of stored tensions and connections that inform every conversation they have even when they aren’t stated. Lonergan’s achievements aren’t only internalized to the characters, though. In fact, Terry’s contradictions are emblematic of the film’s multiple selves. The notional style is naturalism – so naturalistic that the style doesn’t even feel like an idiom for Lonergan – but the editing by Anne McCabe and the cinematography by Stephen Kazmierski are cut for each conversation and gaze to play out as a quilt-work of fluctuating power dynamics, personal desires, and personal interpretations. The film is loose and ragged but inimitably composed and precise.
The aesthetic nonchalance of the film really hits pay-dirt when Lonergan lets loose, as in a late-film physical confrontation between Terry and Rudy’s father where the editing breaks and exhibits exactly the indifference to conventional rhythms that only either an extraordinarily talented director or a non-director moonlighting as a director (a la Lonergan) could exhibit. During the confrontation, Lonergan and McCabe gleefully upend the 180 rule that dictates shots should only cut to other angles within 180 degrees of the original so as not to confuse audiences about the spatial configurations of the characters. The fight, of course, is an emotional climax – a breakage of the emotional rhythms of normalcy in the film – and You Can Count on Me depicts it as a stylistic collapse of the visual rules around which the film is perceptually constructed.
But You Can Count on Me is also a portrait of a town, of a mental space that is neither hectic nor placid, as well as a perennial reminder that upstate New York and down-country Mississippi really aren’t all that different. Although it doesn’t have the widest berth of any film ever made – this isn’t Altman, although one suspects Lonergan watches Nashville every month – other characters interfere with the two-character study an easier filmmaker might have written and directed. Lonergan doesn’t let his two central characters off the hook by keeping them away from other people; they are part of this town, and the town is part of them, violating but also constructing their emotional registers and their own sibling relationship. And the side-characters are deep chasms of possibility for Lonergan as well. He is possibly the best director of actors in the world, including of himself in an endearingly indecisive portrayal of a pastor in one scene here. (The way he nonchalantly, drolly says “well…it’s a sin…” to adultery perhaps emblematizes Lonergan’s filmmaking more than anything else I can think of). And Sammy’s boss/lover Brian effortlessly calls on Matthew Broderick to play up his watery acting style to create a hopelessly milquetoast man frustrated with the world around him.
Above all, You Can Count on Me is an extraordinarily compassionate film, without the mental tidiness of a monolithically and monumentally grim, frosty, off-putting, completely organized style that is inhospitable to both audience members and emotions that don’t fit into its stylistic predisposition. It’s a frustrated film, but one blissfully free of any affectedly agitated stylistic tricks or conventional tools of the trade that dictate how we should feel. Emotionally unguarded, Lonergan even implies that such aesthetic refuge can be a safety net for a film, a way of ensconcing drama in the shelter of pristine beauty – each moment a bold and beautifully complete statement – rather than the withered, careworn, speculative diagnoses this film utilizes.
But that’s the point: it’s a warm, reflective, brittle, amorphous film about warm, reflective, brittle, amorphous characters, never truly clarified yet ultimately so comfy that you slide in. It is almost the case that the relationships between the characters are so unclarified because they never needed to be explicitly demarcated, boundaried, or defined because they were so easily developed to begin with, because when you grow up with people the confines of your relationship accumulate ambiguously in gestures and gazes naturally rather than being set in stone in board meetings. Even the messy lapses of the film fold effortlessly into this guileless fabric, cumulating in a film about mistakes and small failures. The film embodies its mess, rather than simply being about mess from a cleanly-perched, foreign tower of aesthetic and dramatic perfection.