Life During Wartime by noted and polemical independent writer/director Todd Solondz is an interesting piece indeed. Its synopsis describes it quite astutely as “Part Sequel/Part Variation” on Happiness, his 1998 film of quite some acclaim. The assessment is quite accurate as this film does manage to stand apart from the previous title as things eventually do all fit in this particular installment but the first act could be somewhat illuminated by having seen the prior, however, seeing Happiness is not necessary to enjoy this film.
This is all a credit to Solondz as basically he has created a work, in which despite the fact that these characters have prior celluloid history this tale manages to be self-contained and is not entirely dependent on the audience’s existing knowledge of the players in the drama.
What is also very interesting is that you have a cast put in a position where they must be very familiar with their previous moment, backstory or perhaps, in a few cases, react to a revelation not made on screen. There are quite a few examples, the first scene of the film between Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Allen (Michael K. Williams) is one that is in medias res in terms of the flow of the conversation. Immediately, we feel there is baggage there, they both come to tears in the discussion but we know not exactly what the baggage is right of the bat but it gets filled in later.
Similarly, Joy and her ex, Andy (Paul Reubens), have an odd late night encounter in a restaurant and nearly the whole scene plays out before our suspicions that Paul is no longer living are confirmed. All the scenes which Henderson and Reubens share are absolutely electric and the height of drama and if it was a two character film it would’ve worked just fine.
Not that moving out of this odd series of visions that Joy has harms the film necessarily. You also have in his own thread Bill (Ciarán Hinds), who in his own way is also a ghost, in as much as he has been considered dead by his ex-wife and she said as much to her children. It is a very Ibsenesque/Bergmanesque touch to have ghosts in this tale both literally and figuratively. What we don’t necessarily know up front, if we are only seeing this film, is what Bill’s crime is for which he is being released from jail and how he connects to the rest of the characters but sure enough the answers all fall into place, the haziness dissipates and things come into focus.
Then there is the family that Bill left behind lead by a matriarch Trish (Allsion Janney) and this thread focuses mostly on how she is not only dealing with her impending marriage to Harvey (Michael Lerner) but also her struggles with her son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) who is about to have his Bar Mitzvah. The path they both take is ultimately the central focus as it closes out the film. The truth is disseminated by Trish but sanitized to an extent and causes some confusion. It throws the ultimate monekywrench into Timmy’s life as he was almost certain of what it takes to be and means to be a man. The nucleus also contains some of the most compelling performances of the film, Allison Janney is once again brilliant and newcomer Dylan Riley Snyder excels dealing with very difficult material and conveying, depending upon the situation, a different level of understanding of the given circumstances.
Much of the discussion with this film deals with the acting because it is a very character-driven piece, which also manages not to be dialogue-driven, again to its benefit. Ultimately, in nearly every scene we know the subtext or at least that there is a subtext being played. One particular example is Bill’s reunion with his older son, Billy, (Chris Marquette) who knew his father wasn’t dead and what he had done. There is palpable tension but there is also restraint and we can fill in the blanks of what they mean to be saying but are not. Even though Bill eventually reveals what he is trying to ascertain by his questions we know there is more to it.
The kudos for the cast could continue to include Helen (Ally Sheedy), the third sister in this tale, with whom Joy seeks a respite from her life. This is the kind of film that is most likely to grow upon second viewing as the first time around you are digging for answers if you don’t know them already but you are definitely focusing on what these characters are and are not saying to each other. It is a film with a social and political message to convey here and there but allows you to take it or leave it if you should so choose. It’s not an indoctrinating vehicle in the end but just a story about its people.
Todd Solondz’s latest is definitely a film worth seeing, if not once, then twice.