March 19, 2007

Reign Over Me

Mike Binder was the perfect person to make this film. There are many filmmakers that could have captured the outbursts, the anger and the despair. But depression is about more than anger and despair. In Reign Over Me, Binder focuses his film on all of the time that passes in between, when people filled with loss and hopelessness have to exist and fill the time.
He doesn't make his subject, Charlie Fineman, psychotic or insane. Despite the manner in which we first meet him, Charlie's problem isn't lack of clarity. It's too much clarity, seeing the things that matter to him most every single day and having to deal with the fact they're never coming back. Charlie wants so desperately to be insane, to be a person damaged enough to lose the part of him that matters most.
The protagonist, Dr. Alan Johnson DMD, has a beautiful wife and lovely polite little children. He runs a successful practice and maintains a comfortable lifestyle. But he is no less alone than Charlie, and like Charlie does little more than count his days. Henry David Thoreau once said that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." These two are certainly ringing endorsements of his theory.
Alan and Charlie find in each other a friendly face from a time before their present problems. Together they still do little more than pass the time, but they make a much better go of it with the extra company. Gradually Alan gets glimpses into the part of Charlie's world that is no longer directly acknowledged. Gradually Charlie is entrusted with the areas of Alan's life that he insists are fine to every one else.
As it turns out, Charlie had a beautiful wife and three beautiful little girls once. They even had a little dog. They were visiting family in Boston, and he was going to meet them in Los Angeles. They got on one of two American Airlines flights from Logan to LAX that did not make it that morning.
United 93 made 9/11 feel like the present in one very real and tangible way. Reign Over Me makes 9/11 feel like the present another way. Days, months, years may have passed, but Charlie's grief has not. I was one of the lucky ones; I didn't lose any people on 9/11, I sat back and watched the nation change. Watching documentaries, news specials, and objective representations like United 93 thus stir up a more detached and abstract sense of grief. There is nothing detached or abstract about Charlie's grief. His grief springs from the same spring as all real, human loss.
As such, 9/11 has never felt more tangibly present and terrible than it did with this movie. There were moments when the whole audience cried. I have no doubt that 9/11 caused some of those tears; the tragedy certainly colours both the film and its audience. But most tears, I expect, were reserved for Charlie.
Don Cheadle should be given a great deal of credit for making our window into Charlie a complete and believable character. Liv Tyler is a soft, needed presence. But the focus will be and should be on Adam Sandler's performance, easily the best of his career. He has given skilful performances before; Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish come to mind. But this is the first dramatic performance that will be remembered as more than a vivid contrast to his usual comedic fare. The humour of many of his Happy Madison characters is here. So too is the rigid restraint of his Punchdrunk Love persona. But while those performances were driven by anger, this performance is driven by despair. This difference results in completely different body language and verbal rhythm. Even the outbursts are completely different. When Sandler releases that despair, he achieves something that is all at once brave, honest, unflinching and private. Sandler is a lifelong New Yorker, and he doesn't hold that back. His performance refuses to let 9/11 be anything other than personal. We're only into March, but he is my early favourite for Best Actor next year.
Mike Binder took ideas he'd been playing around with in the underrated Upside of Anger and placed them front and centre in our cultural consciousness. United 93 gave us the objective story last year, and now here Reign Over Me comes to give us a subjective version. It's time.


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