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There’s a strange, stark bleakness to this intriguing and perplexing film from director and co-writer Rick Alverson. It is like a disturbing dream – and certainly anything featuring Jeff Goldblum, Udo Kier and Denis Lavant is sure to offer a strong range of flavours at the very least. There are fascinating visual compositions: weird rectilinear tableaux made from the forbidding lines of hospital corridors and lonely motel balconies. Cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman gives us colours that are bleached out and subdued, as if approximating what people with severe depression see.
This is a film with an impressive, sometimes oppressive craft and technique – but it also feels unfinished. A sustained and rather brilliant conjuring of atmosphere, with some superb ambient music, finally succumbs to a rather banal inability to decide where to take the story and exactly how important the story has been. And it is disappointing that Goldblum’s tremendous and sometimes hilarious character disappears from the film, leaving us with the uncomfortable feeling that there was so much more to say about him. He is, in effect, replaced with a ridiculous, scenery-gobbling turn from Lavant, which crowds out the final section of the picture.
The period is the 1950s and Tye Sheridan plays Andy, a subdued and introspective young man employed at an ice rink where his father Frederick (Kier) is a skating instructor. Andy’s mother has been admitted to hospital with depression and when Frederick dies, Andy is free to re-establish the contact with her that his father forbade.
But his tentative thoughts on these lines are immediately paralysed by the bizarre appearance in his life of a man who is to become a highly unlikely and unwholesome father figure – Dr Wallace Fiennes (Goldblum), the psychiatrist who it seems has carried out a lobotomy on Andy’s mother and has now been mysteriously “let go” by the hospital.
Lobotomies are unfashionable in the world of mental-health care, which prefers tranquilliser drugs, and the now unemployed Dr Fiennes persuades Andy to join him on a very odd road trip, as his personal photographer, taking pictures of lobotomy patients in hospitals all over the country. He also performs this discredited operation as a roving freelance, often with disastrous results.
Goldblum’s Fiennes is eccentric, dishevelled, garrulous and louche. His long grey hair is often disordered. He is in the habit of picking up women in bars with Andy as his mute wingman. There is a wonderful scene in which he mesmerises two women in a cafe by telling them which Hollywood stars they resemble. And it is during one such escapade that Andy has a sexual experience with a patient and conceives a new desire: to achieve a kind of telepathic oneness with his mother by undergoing one of Fiennes’s grisly procedures.
Sexuality in this film is represented as transgressive and abusive. A miasma of denied shame is everywhere. Goldblum often relieves and redeems this unhappy atmosphere with his wit and droll elegance. I wonder if he improvised his comic set pieces. And yet his character turns out to have been going nowhere, like a preliminary sketch for a painting that we are not shown. It’s frustrating. A film with real cinematic language, but that does not say anything very convincing or substantial.
Source: The Guardian
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