Directed by Gus Van Sant
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
On September 14, 2011 I did a Q and A with Gus Van Sant following the NBR screening of his film Restless. Van Sant is a thoughtful and caring man who enjoys discussing film and the creative process as much as anyone I have met. He was particularly interested in praising his young actors for their daring and intuitive approaches to their work.
Restless, Gus Van Sant’s new film, opens with a series of shots revealing a somewhat overcast Portland, Oregon as the bouncy Beatle’s song “Two of Us” is heard on the soundtrack. At first the song seems a mysterious choice, with it’s chorus about “going home”. Neither character we are about to meet is in any process of going home–if anything they are preparing to leave their home for new experiences. But the song is about two people “Sunday driving, not arriving, on our way back home.” This perfectly fits Van Sant’s gentle but unsentimental view of life–especially as lived by the young. This is a story about two people who find each other–who “Sunday drive and don’t arrive” – but home is not part of their lives. It’s something they might dream about, knowing they will never really be there.
Restless is based on a short play by Jason Lew that was developed into a children’s book, before finally becoming a script. It landed on Van Sant’s desk via producer Dallas Bryce Howard and is a stripped-down story that takes some gentle but surprising turns as the characters are challenged by the tragic circumstances of their own lives.
Barely in their twenties, Enoch and Annabelle have withdrawn from society before being old enough to have even participated. Unlike the troubled skateboarder Alex in Van Sant’s darker and more expressionistically styled Paranoid Park (2009), or Alex and Eric, the young sociopaths in Elephant (2003), the film maker’s Columbine-inspired meditation on violence, Enoch and Annabelle were probably on a path towards eclectic but “normal” existences before their lives took a downturn. In the earlier films there is a strange and unnerving inevitability to the violence that erupts, but in Restless Enoch and Annabelle are like deer caught in the 1000 watt halogen glow of a hunter’s floodlight. Miraculously they seem to have each discovered the same coping mechanism to their personal tragedies–they meet while attending the wakes and funerals of strangers. Whether trying to forget their own problems or to understand them on a more profound level through the suffering of others, the experience becomes a bonding event that seals their fates together.
Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska are the most ephemeral screen couple of the year. Hopper, making his screen debut, is unmistakably the son of actor and director Dennis Hopper. Like his father–a lean wiry gang member in Nick Ray’s Rebel without a Cause–Henry has the same deep eyes and thinly focused face that is hard to look away from. He embodies the role of Enoch with a rich combination of tentative quiet and just-below-surface anger that adds complexity and a touch of unpredictability. When we meet him he is young and damaged, without hope that life can become bearable again. The family tragedy that broke Enoch’s spirit is paralleled in a more personal way in Annabel’s experience. Like an angel trying to hover above the darkness of the natural world, she has been given the worse break imaginable–incurable brain cancer that promises to take her life in a matter of months. But Annabel has found a way to accept and forgive. Once again (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) Wasikowska has given a poignant, funny, and utterly believable performance.
Enoch and Annabelle see their circumstances as some sort of game destined to be played alone, until unexpectedly finding that they can play together. She pretends to be a relative to spare Enoch when he is caught as a funeral interloper. Outside they role-play together, taking turns pretending to be relatives of the deceased, testing each other’s acting skills and believability. Later, in a scene that tests the viewer’s ability to decode their intentions, Enoch and Annabelle will explore their abilities to role-play and act together in a more entertaining and ritualistic way–improvising responses to their own deaths.
Both have developed coping mechanisms to help face their losses. Annabel’s drawings and stories about birds and insects come from an interest in the life of Charles Darwin, who’s theory of the survival of the fittest she seems to be sadly emulating. Enoch talks with Hiroshi, a young Japanese kamikaze pilot only he can see, passing the evening hours in friendly games of battleship that Enoch never wins.
Restless, like a number of Van Sant’s films, was shot in Portland and the general look of the film, especially the daytime landscapes and the interiors of Henry’s home, has the low contrast texture of a cool foggy morning. The relaxed pace of the editing gradually draws us into the private lives of Enoch and Annabelle. Neither are rushing through the world. Enoch has come to an emotional standstill because of a car accident on a cold winter night that took the lives of his parents and sent him into a coma. Annabel comes from a broken home. Her mother is a drunk and her older sister is disappointed about the lot she has been handed–watching out for an unstable mother and reacting helplessly as her younger sister slowly loses her health.
Schuyler Fisk, the daughter of Sissy Spacek, plays the sister with an edge that makes the character believable. Though not a large role, Fisk makes her stand out as someone who wants to help but must ultimately come to terms with the knowledge that there are limits to the degree we can effect positive change in the lives of family and friends.
Ryo Kase as Hiroshi, Enoch’s invisible friend, is earnest and caring, a friendly and occasionally forceful presence, guiding him away from suicidal thoughts. Hiroshi ultimately understands that Enoch’s relationship with Annabel should take precedence over their friendship, helping Enoch to acknowledge the value of life over fantasy.
In the hospital, as she is getting sicker, Annabel receives a toy xylophone from Enoch. There is no clue as to why he has chosen the gift, it does not follow up on a previous discussion about music, but it is a direct and mysterious gesture that fits the private understanding of life the two have developed. Like many of Van Sant’s previous films we have been admitted to world where very young people must learn to navigate a dangerous path. The heart of the film’s success is the patient and careful directing of Van Sant and the way that Wasikowska and Hopper gradually allow their characters to open up, to recognize what they have found in each other, and to accept and appreciate the time they have together.
Opening on a very limited platform, Restless is the best film to gross less than $35,000 in the first two weeks of release in some time. It’s a small and lovely story that deserves to find an audience before being devoured by the next big production coming down the pipeline.