Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Eighteen

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#18 — You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000)
I feel like I owe Laura Linney an apology. If you reattach ten years of torn-off calendar pages to the wall and find me back in the fall of 1999, I’ll undoubtedly be fully prepared to promptly answer any question about the weakest actors getting regular prominent employment in films with Linney’s name. Largely on the basis of her work in admittedly subpar films like Frank Marshall’s Congo and Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power, I disparaged Linney’s abilities with authoritative indignation. Even when she delivered a strong performance in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, I rationalized it away with the dismissive praise that portraying a bad actress wasn’t much of a stretch. I was wrong. Linney has proved that many times over in the past years, and her winning counter-argument began with Kenneth Lonergan’s film directing debut.

Linney plays Sammy, a woman raising her young son alone and working an unremarkable job at a bank in her modest hometown. Though the return of her wayward brother and an illicit relationship she enters into both bring about some conflict, it is a role largely devoid of flashiness or moments of operatic intensity. Linney is playing that true rarity in film: a normal person living a largely normal life. The things she experiences are not dramatic by the barometer of typical movie plots, but they are dramatic in the context of her own life. It is a movie, then, shaped by reality rather than fantastical imaginings. It exists in a place where changing the colors of a computer display can amount to the grandest of insurrections. Within that framework, Linney is quietly phenomenal. It is the kind of performance that is inevitably described as “lived-in” because equating it with the plain process of simply existing is the only way to properly convey its authenticity. Every line spoken is like a confession of self.

Her primary acting partner onscreen in Mark Ruffalo, playing the troubled brother who seeks a bit of stability by coming home. All the praise parceled out to Linney above applies equally to Ruffalo. His role allows for some more conspicuous acting choices. His character, Terry, is someone who has been wounded by life, continuously and harshly since the night of his childhood when police officers showed up at the door to tell he and Sammy that their parents just died in a car accident. He is a tight coil of nerves, always bracing himself against some new disappointment that must be rushing headlong towards him. He’s preemptively indignant about expected slights and generally moving through life as someone who feels the world has pegged him as an enemy to be worn down. There’s opportunity for big moments here, but Ruffalo, like Linney, keeps it small, trading on subtlety over broad emoting.

Overall understatement is the winning formula that Lonergan brings to the film. He writes dialogue that is often very funny and happily charming. More crucially, it always feels like real conversation instead of movie lines. He strips the artifice away. It’s not the dazzling displays of wit that cause us to connect with the characters onscreen, it’s their believability, their honesty, the fact that they’re all grounded in something that plays true. We recognize choices that are motivated by emotion emotions, often human frailties. When Terry takes Sammy’s son on an ill-conceived mission to meet his father, it’s because Terry is impetuous and has an ingrained need to create justice for others because its been withheld from him. In other films, this sort of scene can easily feel like a set piece, bearing the burden of being a turning point in the narrative. Here it feels like a step Terry took because of who he is, not because of who a screenwriter (or, worse, a studio executive or a test audience) thinks he should be. This sequence is typical of the film because it effortlessly, elegant carries the whole history of the characters with it as it unfolds, even the pieces of their history that we know by inference rather than actual depiction. Thanks to the perfect synchronicity of the actors and the other filmmakers, these people feel like they’ve known each other well before the cameras started the process of documenting their story.

It’s the sort of movie that invites repeated viewings, not to find hidden messages, but to simple experience the thoroughness of the experience, the sense of knowing people onscreen as well as you know anyone. More than that, it’s inspired enough that it inspires immediate fandom for everyone involved. You want to again see these actors inhabit roles, and soak in the smart storytelling of Lonergan, including his smooth, assured visual sense as a director. Ongoing devotion seems the only suitable response.

(Posted simultaneously at “Jelly-Town!”)

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