'Restless': Love And Death, Hand In Hand Again
"Seen any good funerals lately?" That's hardly a typical teen ice-breaker, but in the death-enveloped world of Gus Van Sant's Restless, it's practically a pickup line.
Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) greets Enoch (Henry Hopper) thusly after initially spying him at a friend's memorial service. He didn't know the deceased, and she immediately pegs him for the tourist that he is: He's a funeral regular, sneaking into the back, nattily dressed in a conspicuously old-fashioned black suit. But rather than being offended by his quiet gawking at others' grief, Annabel finds it strangely endearing.
There is a surplus of morbid fascinations and oddball endearments in Jason Lew's first screenplay, based on his stage drama. More than enough, unfortunately, to drown out what insights it does contain on how we handle past, present and future grief. Enoch is haunted by the past — figuratively by the death of his parents in a car crash that nearly took his own life, and literally by the ghost of a World War II kamikaze pilot, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), with whom he spends most of his time, talking and playing Battleship.
When Annabel shows up, she seems like just the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to shake him out of his funk. She's a quirky, bubbly character prone to vintage fashion and sketching wildlife. The only problem is that she's dying of an aggressive, untreatable cancer. The pall that hangs over their lives instantly draws them to one another: He's emotionally broken, withdrawing from a life he no longer wants, while she's physically broken, lusting for life that's determined to flee her body.
Van Sant gives the young lovers the sort of gauzy, dreamily sensitive treatment that he's able to deliver in his sleep by now — but too often it seems like he might be working on just such a sleep-induced autopilot. Restless feels like a directorial doodle, a stopgap to keep himself working after one of his most successful films (2008's Milk), but without material at hand that really inspires him.
And so we get Gus Van Sant's greatest hits, a touch of the quiet contemplation of his '00s "Death Trilogy" combined with the earnest sentimentality of Good Will Hunting. Van Sant even populates the soundtrack with soft acoustic Sufjan Stevens songs that recall Hunting's Elliott Smith tracks; the Stevens song "Wolverine," with its repeated refrain of "It's not your fault," directly recalls Robin Williams' pivotal line in the earlier film.
But it's a shadow of both areas of Van Sant's filmography. Without the minimalist experimentation that typified Gerry or Elephant, the mumbling, meandering tone just becomes narcotic. Without the edge of Hunting's personal conflicts, the twee, doe-eyed romance here is cloyingly sweet. Even longtime Van Sant cinematographer Harris Savides seems to be going through the motions; his autumn-hued, sensitively lit compositions are pretty enough, but aren't nearly as striking as his previous work with the director.
Wasikowska, so good in last year's The Kids Are All Right and this year's Jane Eyre, shows once again why she's one of the best young actresses currently working. She does her best to transform Annabel's idiosyncrasies into real character, doing more than anyone else involved to raise Restless above its own melodramatic quirks. If there's a reason to watch the film, it's her performance. But the narrative is weighted toward the sullen Enoch, and the somewhat blank Hopper doesn't give us enough depth to feel the kind of sympathy toward him that's needed.
With death all around, the stakes ought to be high, but the film barely registers. It's as insubstantial as it is inoffensive, more of a throwaway sketch than a fully formed movie.
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