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Film Review: 'The Mend'

South by SouthwestJosh LucasAustin Pendleton

Debutant feature writer-helmer John Magary directs with a great deal of verve, imbuing even the most drawn-out scenes (as his frequently are) with a clipped, punkish energy. He has a perfect counterpart in leading man Josh Lucas, who approaches his loathsome, destructive drifter character with almost unhinged ferocity. So it's disappointing that two such committed artists have a produced a film like "The Mend," which seems reluctant to commit to much beyond its own meandering transgressive impulses. Worth watching for its genuinely strange combination of wildly underplayed emotional beats and wildly overplayed surface anarchy, this ultimately exhausting compendium of bad brotherly behavior may find champions on the festival circuit, while likely repelling (or boring) mainstream auds.

Lucas stars as Mat, a sloppy, slobbish yet alluringly sleazy New York City layabout, who we first see getting kicked out of the apartment of his single-mother girlfriend, Andrea (Lucy Owen), for an unknown transgression. After short sequences of Mat stumbling around yelling, pouring a drink on a girl in a bar, and attempting to sleep in cafes, he alights to the tony uptown flat of his younger brother, Alan (Stephen Plunkett), who is hosting a party for his girlfriend's dance company.

Mat drifts around the party like a coiled viper, while Alan tries to keep him in line as he prepares for a trip to Canada with girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner), where he plans to propose. The couple rushes off to the airport the next morning, unaware that Mat is still inside the apartment, sleeping off his hangover. He awakes, and goes about making himself at home in the most chaotic manner possible.

At this point, the film descends into the low-key madness that will take up the rest of its running time. (In one representative early scene, Mat drops a glass bottle of ketchup while messily cooking breakfast. He leaves the mess where it is, then walks over the glass in his bare feet a few minutes later.) Before long, Andrea comes over with her poor son (Cory Nichols) for some sex and classic TV watching, followed soon by Alan, who returns earlier than expected.

Although he never talks about it, from his demoralized demeanor and the lack of Farrah alongside him, we assume Alan's proposal went badly. No longer interested in containing his brother's rampaging id, he passively joins in on the debauchery, which slowly ambles from one sequence to another, encompassing power outages, apartment destruction, dead dogs and harassed film-shoot PA's.

Throughout all this, one keeps grasping for some hook, some metaphor, some glimpse of recognizable humanity or directorial commentary that will make the time spent in such miserable company worthwhile. At times, Magary will begin to suggest a budding love triangle involving the brothers and Andrea, or an exorcism of family secrets, or a flash of pent-up rage from Alan, only to pull away from the brink every time. The refusal to ever directly address the brothers' obvious emotional issues is in many ways the whole point -- if a film's defining emotion is frustration, it follows that the film ought to be a bit frustrating as well -- but as the running time stretches to nearly two hours, it starts to feel less like careful understatement than dramatic malnourishment.

Lucas and Plunkett both prove admirably game to plumb the lower depths of depravity, while Sumner provides a breath of fresh air as the one character who won't abide by their childishness. Broadway vet Austin Pendleton has one terrific scene (and one utterly baffling one) as an older friend of Mat and Alan's father.

Considering the sheer amount of time the film spends lingering in a squalid, low-lit apartment with nothing much happening, it's to production designer Markus Kirschner's credit that the setting never feels oppressively claustrophobic, while Magary rarely runs out of new ways to frame it. A busy, at times almost Baroque string score from Judd Greenstein and Michi Wiancko may seem counterintuitive at first, but it smartly complements the prevailing moods of anxiety and bubbling-over confusion.

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