Life During Wartime
A ‘quasi-sequel’ of style and sadness: Solondz revisits characters looking for forgiveness
Twelve years after Todd Solondz’s “Happiness’’ introduced a cauterizingly bleak honesty to American independent cinema, the writer-director has returned with — well, what do you call “Life During Wartime’’? Solondz has referred to it in interviews as a “quasi-sequel,’’ but it’s something harder to grasp: an annotation, an obbligato, a ghost harmony. The smoke after the inferno.
“Wartime’’ returns to the characters of the earlier film — played by different actors, sometimes radically so — and finds them spent, desperate only for forgiveness before calling it a day. The movie’s one of the saddest I’ve ever seen, occasionally to the point of tedium but often enough with a piercing beauty few other filmmakers even approach. At times, it makes you realize Solondz may be the closest heir we’ll get to Robert Bresson, the French filmmaker of human despair and mysterious grace.
Allen, the depressive, obscene phone-caller played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the original and now played by the African-American actor Michael Kenneth Williams, is still married to Joy (previously Jane Adams, now Shirley Henderson), the most cringingly self-conscious of three damaged sisters. Their relationship is suffering, though, since Allen has backslid to the point where even their restaurant waitress recognizes his voice as the heavy breather on the other end of the line.
Joy’s oldest sibling, Trish (Allison Janney, stepping into Cynthia Stevenson’s shoes), is a tightly wound suburban mom who has told her young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) that his father is dead and has embarked on a glowingly physical relationship with a local divorced man (Michael Lerner). It’s unsettling fun to see Janney, a long-established character actress, play lust with such abandon: She puts across Trish’s big, selfish soul and small-minded moralism.
Timmy’s dad, of course, isn’t dead but in jail, serving time for raping young boys. Where Dylan Baker in “Happiness’’ played Bill as a civilized suburbanite tormented by demons — Ward Cleaver crossed with Peter Lorre in “M’’ — the bear-like Irish actor Ciarán Hinds makes the character a figure of racked, implacable guilt. He’s the hole at the movie’s center: a human stain that blots out the sun.
Bill is released from prison early in “Life During Wartime’’ and hangs around his old haunts when no one else is there, the phantom in the wallpaper. He wants what all the characters want — forgiveness — but he has no illusions that he’ll ever be granted it. One of Solondz’s points, though, is that illusion and hope are different things.
The other characters live in smaller boxes of their own defining: Ally Sheedy as the third sister (Lara Flynn Boyle’s former role), a famous Hollywood writer still furious at the world; Henderson’s Joy, haunted by the ghost of her suicidal boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens in non-Pee-wee Herman mode, striking different notes of neediness and rage than the Jon Lovitz version); Bill’s college-aged son Billy (Chris Marquette), remaining silent while his jaded roommates swap stories about their screwed-up parents.
The key figure of “Life During Wartime,’’ though, is Billy’s little brother Timmy, nearing his bar mitzvah and trying with an earnestness that breaks your heart to sort out what it means to become a man. Where the older son was present at the fall, Timmy’s living in the world that comes after — which is to say our world — and only guessing at the sins he stands to inherit. Snyder is extremely moving in a role that some moviegoers will consider abuse. It’s not. Solondz asks characters to confront issues his audiences prefer to avoid, and he asks bravery of his actors in the bargain. That bravery comes in all sizes and ages.
Even so, “Wartime’’ is so structurally and visually controlled that its impact is at times almost fatally muted. (The title especially hints at a political reading that remains oblique and out of reach.) Too many of the sequences are two-character dialogues that take place in restaurants; after a while, the film starts to resemble sketch existentialism. The restraint that gives the film its awful poetry also keeps it under glass. Solondz has returned with a second notion, but it was the first that had the heat of discovery.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.