Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Cast: Sam Waterston, K. Todd Freeman, Michael K. Williams, Corey Stoll, Mickey Sumner, Gretchen Mol, Jessica Hecht, Ben Konigsberg, Hannah Marks, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristen Stewart, Gloria Reuben, Glenn Close
MPAA Rating: (for language, sexual content, drug use and brief violence)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 1/8/16 (limited); 1/29/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 29, 2016
Is that all there is? That seems to be the primary question posed by Anesthesia, and it's also a pretty good one to ask of the movie itself. This is one of those ensemble dramas in which some characters are connected, others are not, and, by the end, the ones who clearly have nothing to do with the main story are pulled into the narrative's central sphere by some senseless tragedy.
The movie lets us know what that tragedy is from the start, so it's clear that writer/director Tim Blake Nelson wants us to try to piece together the remaining connective tissue. It's not just the coincidences and relationships that eventually bind all of these characters in a six-degrees-of-separation sort of way. He wants us to consider the thematic implications of these connections, too. In case one might be wondering how we're supposed to realize what Nelson wants us to be doing throughout the movie, he helpfully has all of his characters speak in long, ponderous bits of dialogue and monologues that constantly tell us two things: These people are unhappy, and they really, really want to but cannot understand why that is.
If the various characters and their stories are seemingly unconnected threads, then Walter (Sam Waterston) is the knot. He's a philosophy professor at a prominent university in New York City who is about to retire. His plan is to spend his remaining years experiencing the life upon which he has pondered for decades. The movie's major tragedy, again, is revealed at the start, so we know that, at some point near the end of the movie, Walter eventually will find himself at a corner market, buy some flowers for his wife (Glenn Close), and end up on the floor of the entrance to an apartment building, bleeding and whispering some final words to a complete stranger.
The rest of the cast of characters includes Walter's son Adan (Nelson), whose wife Jill (Jessica Hecht) recently learned she has a tumor on one of her ovaries. Their children Hal (Ben Konigsberg) and Ella (Hannah Marks) don't take well to the news, although it's mostly because they find their mother to be an insufferable nag and their father to be an emasculated coward. Hal would rather continue smoking pot on the roof of the apartment building and plan to lose his virginity, and Ella has mixed emotions on the possibility of losing her mother.
The stranger who finds Walt dying is Sam (Corey Stoll). He's having an affair with Nicole (Mickey Sumner) while his wife Sarah (Gretchen Mol) is at their home in New Jersey, taking care of their two daughters and convinced that her husband isn't on a business trip in China. Obviously, the couple is unhappy, too, with Sam believing that he rushed into marriage and Sarah realizing that she's just as miserable a suburban mother as she was as a busy New Yorker.
In case this isn't enough, there's a lot more misery here. Joe (K. Todd Freeman) is a drug addict whose childhood friend Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams) forces him into a rehab facility, and Sophie (Kristen Stewart) is a "troubled but brilliant" graduate student of Walter's who routinely burns herself with a curling iron to escape the uncaring reality of, well, reality. The act of burning herself, Sophie says, is "like a drug," so there's that connection spelled out for you.
Escape seems to be the unattainable goal for each of these characters. One could argue that it's happiness or mere contentment, but Nelson's view of things here is far too cynical for something as positive as either of those things. Almost every storyline declines to a nadir for these characters as soon as they are introduced. The exception, of course, is Walter, who has found satisfaction in a life contemplating the big ideas of existence, changing his view from believing in nothing to believing in everything. Of course, we know from the start how that turns out for him.
Since we know the way all of this ends, Nelson's screenplay turns Walter's final lecture, in which he summarizes his final beliefs and ultimate questions about the way society will go from here, into the narrative's climax. It's a thesis statement of sorts for the movie, as in the lengthy monologue, juxtaposed against the motions that will bring all of these characters together, poses a question that the story's actual climax will answer—has already answered, really. It must be noted that Waterston's performance transcends the massive block of text on the page. The character may be telling us what we're supposed to consider and lament, but it's only the actor's kind-hearted, thoughtful manner that allows for any impact here.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a movie that asks such questions and finds hopelessness as the answer, but Anesthesia crosses some kind of line in that regard. There's a feeling of orchestration—of manipulation—to the way Nelson finds these characters at their apparent lowest, offers some sliver of hope for everyone, and then pummels them with a final, cruel joke of sorts.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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