Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Mary Kay Place Shines as Diane in Kent Jones's Haunting Elegy to an Ordinary Life

(Kent Jones, 2018, USA, 95 minutes) 

Kent Jones, former film critic and director of the New York Film Festival, introduces himself as a filmmaker who isn’t obsessed with style, at least not in the ostentatious way of other first-time fiction filmmakers eager to show off their skills (his two previous features were documentaries about Elia Kazan and Hitchcock / Truffaut). This Martin Scorsese-produced film, instead, has a plainspoken, slightly hypnotic feel, which fits his seemingly quotidian subject matter.

Mary Kay Place plays Diane, a tireless widow who spends most of the movie looking after other people in her Western Massachusetts hometown. The hypnotic feel comes from the fact that she has to drive everywhere, and Jones uses the driving sequences as a sort of rhythmic, repetitive device.

Though it’s often said that women of a certain age don’t get many opportunities to play leading roles, that isn’t necessarily true. It’s more that casting directors don’t often look beyond the usual suspects and the films with unknowns, like Sean Baker's Starlet, don't attract as much attention.

Place and Graham Jarvis in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
Place may not have the name recognition of Meryl Streep or Kathy Bates, but she’s hardly an unknown, so it still seems surprising that she hasn’t top-lined more films, particularly since she’s often garnered as much acclaim as--if not more than--the actors with whom she’s worked since the early-1970s.

In Jones’s film, which takes place in the dead of winter, she never stops moving. Diane volunteers at a soup kitchen, visits her terminally ill cousin Donna (a terrific Dierdre O’Connell), and checks in on her troubled son Brian (Jake Lacy, playing against his sweet, supportive Obvious Child type). Brian swears that he has bronchitis, but Diane’s quite certain he’s using again.

Though she lives by herself, she’s hardly alone. Some of the people with whom she can share her troubles include Bobbie (Andrea Martin in fine form) and Donna’s mother, Mary (Estelle Parsons, as impish as ever).

One night, the power goes off at the soup kitchen, the staff lights candles, and everyone eats their dinner bathed in the golden glow. Jones may not be obsessed with style, but that doesn't mean he eschews it as this sequence plays like something from out of a Renaissance painting. And when Diane visits Brian while he’s clearly on the nod, disorienting music and wobbly visuals converge to slow down time. There are also several lovely dissolves, like a fade out from a headlight-lit road to the inviting interior of a diner.

Once Brian disappears, Diane starts to disintegrate. She lashes out at a volunteer, argues with Donna, drinks too much, and breaks down in tears. Then, when Brian comes back, he's turned into a Bible thumper. It's like he's a pod person. Meanwhile, friends and relatives are dying around her.

Donna and Diane play bridge in the hospital
Diane goes on, but there's less to do, fewer people to see. She starts writing in a journal. Or maybe she always has, but it assumes greater importance as the perimeters of her life shrink. Eventually, it becomes so small that reality and fantasy bleed into each other. I wasn't always sure what was real and what was not, but I guess that's what it's like when you do more living inside of your head than out in the world. The past comes to the fore as the present recedes.

I found my connection to Diane slipping away as the scenario segued from realism to impressionism. If was as if the ghost in the machine was Bergman, specifically the Bergman of Wild Stawberries and Cries and Whispers; the death, the isolation, the visions. I'm usually on board with that sort of thing, but two modes don't fit together as well as they could.

Fortunately, Place weathers the changes like a champ. She never asks the audience to like her; Diane isn't perfect, and she knows it. She isn't explicitly trying to make up for misdeeds, but she is trying to be a good person. If she has a failing, it's that she doesn’t know how to be happy.

There are momentary glimpses of joy in a card game with her cousin and a sloshed singalong to a jukebox, but it never seems to last. Only her son is left behind to remember her kindness, and Jones is enough of a realist to suggest that Brian may never understand how lucky he was. But we know.

Diane opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown on April 19. For more info, click here.

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