Restless ** ½
Directed by: Gus Van Sant.
Written by: Jason Lew.
Starring: Henry Hopper (Enoch Brae), Mia Wasikowska (Annabel Cotton), Ryo Kase (Hiroshi Takahashi), Schuyler Fisk (Elizabeth Cotton), Lusia Strus (Rachel Cotton), Jane Adams (Mabel).
The films of Gus Van Sant have been obsessed with death for a decade now. There was his so called “Death Trilogy” starting in 2002 with Gerry, where Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walked around in the desert until one killed the Elephant, based on the Columbine massacre and 2005’s Last Days, about Kurt Cobain’s suicide. He followed those up with the similarly styled Paranoid Park in 2008, about a skateboarder who accidently kills a security guard. Through these four movies, Van Sant has examined death by friend, death by stranger, death by self and death by accident. All four of the films were great in their own way – not looking to explain why things happened, but simply observing them. When he did make a mainstream film, it was 2008’s Milk, which was also a film that pulls us along towards death – and the specter of death hangs over every frame. Perhaps that’s why he made Restless. Like those other films, we know early on that the film will end with someone dying. But unlike those other films, it isn’t a dark examination of death, but more like a fantasy. Mia Wasikowska’s Annabel is the healthiest looking end stage cancer patient I’ve ever seen. She must have the same kind that Ali McGraw had in Love Story that simply made he look more beautiful, rather than the reality of withering away to nothing. So while Restless ends the same way as Van Sant’s other recent films, it’s comforting rather than sad.
The movie opens with Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis), a teenager whose parents died in a car accident not long ago, and is still not over it. He was in the car when it happened and ended up in a coma for months – so when he woke up, he not only discovered his parents were dead, but also buried, and everyone else moving on. Now, he spends his time splayed out on the concrete drawing chalk outline around himself, and attending funerals. He is also visited occasionally by Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot, although whether he’s delusional, playing make believe or really haunted is never explained. He is much like Harold from Harold and Maude, 40 years ago.
It’s at one of these funerals he first sets eyes on Annabel (Wasikowska), wearing an Annie Hall style big, floppy hat. She’s beautiful, and smiles at him. Their first meeting doesn’t go so well, but eventually, they warm to each other. She tells him she has cancer and has 3 months to live. He’s okay with that – it actually fits in with his death obsession nicely. She doesn’t want to talk about it – she wants to live in the moment, and have a normal teenage romance with Enoch before she goes.
The performances by Hopper and Wasikowska go a long way to making this movie palatable. Hopper looks much like his father – has the same sort of crooked grin, strange charm and off kilter eyes. I have no doubts that he’ll end up playing many psychopaths like his dad did. But here, he uses all of this to develop a strange charm. Enoch should be a lot creepier than he is, given his actions, but Hopper makes you like the kid, and feel sorry for him. Wasikowska is, to use that overused critical phrase, radiant as Annabel. Her sweet, open face, her charming smile, her Mia Farrow haircut makes you fall in love with her easily.
The film is, of course, a fantasy. Cancer isn’t really like this, but we like to think it is, if only so it’s easier on us and our loved ones when eventually we die, as we all will. But in the hands of Hopper, Wasikowska and Van Sant (aided tremendously by Harris Savides’s excellent cinematography) it almost works. Yes, the film manipulates you, tries hard to milk tears out of you, but you almost don’t care because so much of the movie is so charming. But the film goes a little too far – tries to become a little too hip and clever for its own good, with its indie rock soundtrack and too many stylistic flourishes. I don’t begrudge Van Sant for wanting to make a cheerier movie than he has made in a decade – I am surprised it has taken him this long to do so in fact. And while the film is undeniably his, it remains perhaps the most minor, low key work of his career.