Dir/scr: Jacob Aaron Estes. US. 2010. 91mins
Jacob Aaron Estes, whose powerful debut feature Mean Creek premiered at Sundance 2004, sets up a particular challenge for himself with his ambitious follow-up The Details. In making a movie about a selfish, lying, cheating prick (a Seattle doctor played by Tobey Maguire), director Estes risks alienating his audience for much of the film.
This dark, deeply cynical film eventually arrives at a morally complex and potentially satisfying end, full of intriguing and unsettling questions about responsibility, karmic retribution and the possibilities of redemption.
The Details is far from a crowdpleaser, but the name cast - which also includes an excellent Dennis Haysbert as a man suffering from kidney failure, and Ray Liotta, as a tough husband, who steals a key, pivotal scene set atop a Seattle bridge - should guarantee limited theatrical play in the US and internationally, and substantial sales on VOD and DVD.
For the first half, in particular, the protagonist, Jeff Lang (Maguire), commits one callous act after another. Whether its his obsession with killing the raccoons that are destroying his backyard, flirting with online prostitutes, screaming at his wife (Elizabeth Banks) or committing adultery and failing to own up to it, Lang ratchets up a series of reprehensible acts that would make most movie villains look like saints.
Fortunately, when Laura Linney turns up as his “wackadoodle” neighbor Lila, a lonely, nosy, fragile, germ-phobic basket-case, who wants to screw the smug doctor, the actress livens up the movie with a hilarious, over-the-top performance. In one fantastic and funny seduction scene, the actress swings wildly between grieving mourner and exotic temptress.
But it’s difficult to understand Estes’s aims in the film’s first section: Is he making a dysfunctional marriage dramedy? Not really, as Banks’s character recedes from prominence. A weird suburban nightmare? Possibly, as Jeff imagines raccoons haunting him at every turn.
Awkward shifts in tone and style further confuse matters: Select use of distorting wide angle close-ups evoke a kind of surrealist satire, whereas the vaguely Tim Burton-esque score suggests a macabre fairytale. But the film’s eventual strengths do not come from its flights of black magical realism, but from Maguire’s character’s more straightforward come-uppance.
This dark, deeply cynical film eventually arrives at a morally complex and potentially satisfying end, full of intriguing and unsettling questions about responsibility, karmic retribution and the possibilities of redemption. A final sequence set almost entirely in a car, in which Jeff lists of the details of his transgressions, allows Banks to finally show off her acting talents and successfully synthesises the film’s striving for dark comedy. But it takes awhile for the movie’s many pieces and issues to fit together.
Production companies: Lidell Entertainment, Mark Gordon Productions
International sales: CAA, www.caa.com
Producers: Mark Gordon, Hagai Shaham, Bryan Zuriff
Executive producers: Mickey Liddell, Jennifer Hilton
Cinematography: Sharone Meir
Production designer: Toby Corbett
Editor: Madeleine Gavin
Main cast: Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Kerry Washington