Drama Film Review 2016: "Anesthesia" (Written & Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, w/Sam Waterston, Gretchen Mol, et. al)
Many hefty, meditative ideas and pronouncements are made throughout "Anesthesia", the latest directorial effort from actor turned writer-director Tim Blake Nelson. Notable for his many iconic roles in the films of the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg's 2002 sci-fi golden egg "Minority Report" and, even, really big-budget comic book fare such as 2008's more action-oriented "The Incredible Hulk", Nelson really takes to task all that he's learned as a character actor and apply it to his own original creation. The results are, in short, a mixed bag as Nelson attempts to channel 1980's "Bergman"-era Woody Allen and more than a pint of the ensemble work of Paul Haggis, "The Wire" creator and showrunner David Simon, and Alejandro G. Inarritu.
Truly, there is an immediate bum rush of contextualizing when the film greets the viewer. Starting with an invasively shot stabbing of an elderly philosophy professor, Walter, portrayed by Sam Waterston who also narrates the proceedings, in a dank and dimly lit apartment hallway, which serves to open up the canvas that splinters off into four other thematically connected stories. This one heinous and solitary act of violence is Nelson's catalyst to weave ideas about the nature of being human and the impermanence of life, freedom and choice to pursue one's path. Many know Waterston from his longtime role as DA Jack McCoy on the original "Law & Order" and, more recently, as misanthropic TV executive Charlie Skinner in the Aaron Sorkin created and written HBO's "The Newsroom". Walter's internal late-in-life crises and philosophical musings act as the umbrella to which the rest of the movie presses on. Waterston, playing the role earnestly and convivially, despite his dire circumstances, allow for the sense of foreboding to creep in ever so slightly and not barrage the viewer head on. It is told, largely in flashback, starting from the inciting stabbing backward. Nelson doesn't give us a specific time, but the locales undeniably switch between New York City and deep suburban New Jersey.
So, does Nelson's high-minded conceptualism get the better of him? In many ways, yes. At the Q&A screening I attended on January 9, 2016 at the IFC Center, Nelson offered an intimate look into his pre-production process which revealed the fact that he consulted his graduate school philosophy professor on the project. One audience member was quick to remark on that which led Nelson to backpedal into an explanation surrounding how he wanted to be authentic to Walter's characterization while seeking to make sure to get the finer, denser subject matter an accurate depiction. As cautious and careful a move as that may have been, the film winds up addressing and tackling too much too soon with not enough attention paid to the more exploratory themes at play. All too frequently, character development and narrative purpose were sidelined in favor of overly preachy dialogue which may have benefited from more editing in the writer's room. Most glaringly, virtually every character regardless of intelligence level or status spoke in the same manner: highly eloquent and uniformly astute. That singular issue took me out of the film quite a bit because of how unnatural it appeared. It would appear that Nelson's unfamiliarity with philosophical test forced him to over rely on more seasoned, scholarly eyes. This choice doesn't make the film completely irredeemable, however.
Thanks in major part to a well-rounded and versatile cast, the material survives the rough landings and keeps it from being totally banal. Waterston and Close, the latter of which played his widowed wife, share some wonderful scenes together. Their rapport feels lived in and in the intimate moments, allowed to breathe and evolve at its own cadence. Similarly, Corey Stoll of FX's Guillermo Del Toro produced series "The Strain" and as the villainous industrialist inventor Darren Cross/Yellowjacket in last Summer's "Ant-Man", does very moving work as Sam, a husband who unexpectedly flees the nest of Gretchen Mol's Sarah. He does so to subvert the feeling of needing to settle down in suburbia and takes off with a British mistress who also shares his feelings of displacement and the dread behind sacrificing one's independence. It was remarkable to see him display such range in a dialed down tone and sensitive performance even if his and Sarah's reasoning behind their initial estrangement wasn't fully fleshed out. Kristen Stewart, in a surprise bit of casting, does what amounts to some of her better work post-"Twilight" franchise as she plays trauma-inflicted philosophy graduate student Sophie who suffers interminably with suicidal ideation and, later, attempts via a curling iron on her wrists and calves. Stewart's faculty advisor is Walter and he immediately takes an interest in her destructive despair by offering her sage counsel and, to a degree, paternal protection and nurturing during routine sessions to her psychiatrist. Walter, like writer-director Nelson, aim to make sure that all the characters and people in his life are adequately taken care of but, to mixed degrees of success despite the noblest of intentions. The standout, breakaway star of the movie was relative unknown K. Todd Freeman as Joe, a repeat drug offender who just can't keep the needle at bay. After a potent, powerful sequence featuring an intervention by childhood friend and ace lawyer Jeffrey played smarmily by "The Wire" and "Boardwalk Empire"-alum Michael K. Williams, Joe attempts to convince Jeffrey that the allure of drugs has worn off in favor of adhering to Jeffrey's key conditions for sobriety. When that goes awry, Joe winds up on the lam in a bid to embrace what he believes is his destructive nature. It is an endlessly watchable and often unflinching portrayal that never pulls its punches or sneakily tries to insert a sermon where emotion already is. Nelson wisely doesn't depict Joe as a walking cliche despite the movie being largely composed of contradictions and one-dimensional facades. His struggle is real and we feel that frame for frame. Just wish some of the others felt this urgent.
In sum, if Nelson had just been more cognizant of how closely strung together his stories were, the film overall would have been many leagues more successful in transmitting the philosophical framework that runs clearly through the movie's endoskeleton. Some sections ooze with confidence and punctuality while others flounder and grasp at moments that just fade into nihility. If he ever decides to release a director's cut, with some adjustments, this could stand alongside the work of Julie Delpy in depicting New York-set stories on a small scale where small moments count and the select bigger strokes pay off more.