Occasionally fiction isn’t stranger than truth.
Andrew Jarecki’s second feature (the first being Capturing the Freidmans—2003 documentary) was well worth the wait. With the heady mix of a true-life, unsolved murder spanning more than two decades and a first-rate cast, this film is a marvellous study of being intimate with another human being only to realize that your beloved is nowhere close to the proferred persona.
Writers Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling have done a remarkable job of crafting a screenplay that melds long-known facts, new revelations and informed speculation into a carefully modulated telling of what might have been the perfect crime. (Fortunately, there are no statutes of limitation for capital offences—the next chapter, perhaps picking up the trail in the Sunshine state, might yet shed new light on the disappearance of a beautiful medical student whose husband’s metamorphosis from back-to-the-earth hippie to uncaring rent collector for the family firm was both shocking and physically threatening.)
At the centre of it all is David Marks (Ryan Gosling is sensational in his transformation from principled man to self-serving transvestite). He falls in love with a girl, Katie McCarthy, (a subtly nuanced performance from Kirsten Dunst) far beneath his domineering father’s expectations (“She’s not going to be one of us.”). Playing the ruthless patriarch, Frank Langella turns in a wonderfully evil portrayal of a pathetic man who is not above forcing his impressionable son to witness/prevent (one of many details left to the viewer’s final determination) his troubled wife’s suicide.
After a short time of relative bliss opening All Good Things (a back-to-the-earth general store) in rural Vermont, the film’s biggest puzzle sees headstrong David cave too easily. But the allure of a spectacular apartment in Manhattan and a trendy summer house is enough for the idealistic couple to abandon their shared philosophy and dreams in order to fulfill those of He who Must Be Obeyed.
Along the journey, we meet Katie’s kin. Key amongst them is brother Jim (Nick Offerman) whose concern for his sibling is only skin deep. But, if he’d been stronger and not so prone to inertia when the obvious abuse was undeniable, there likely wouldn’t have been the mysterious result that gives the film its voyeuristic allure.
Two other women figure prominently in the disturbing events. Deborah (Lily Rabe) loves to party and proves to be as willing as David to don a blonde wig to muddy the waters of recognition; friend Janice (Diane Venora) provides support and advice but no one seems able to prevent Katie from vanishing in 1982.
Eighteen years later, David’s past catches up to the present. The incredibly named Malvern Bump (Philip Baker Hall’s transition from scornful co-tenant to hopeful roommate is entirely convincing), a neighbour during the ex-rent collector’s girly days, meets a grizzly end. The jury must decide whether the acknowledged death was murder or self defence. That trial provides the film’s overarching conceit as David’s mostly unseen testimony—notably his background—becomes the voiceover glue that brings all of the story’s threads together. As good as Gosling is, a special callout must go to the makeup and hair crew who have aged the disturbed man in spectacular fashion. Let’s hope Oscar agrees.
The prevailing eerie mood is further enhanced thanks to Rob Simonsen’s death noir original score; the strings of the Filmharmonic Orchestra (Prague) orchestra dig deep with their bows, adding much to the music’s wordless impact.
With the main question still left unsolved, any sleuth on the planet (armchair or gumshoe) ought to see this uncomfortable episode of lives lost in hopes that a detail missed might yet see justice for the naïve dreamer of All Good Things. JWR