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Thursday, 21 April 2011

Film Review: All Good Things

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Indecision is a destructive trait in any area, and is often deadly in film. All Good Things really can’t decide what it wants to be, odd considering it’s based on true events and proudly states this at the bookends of the film. But its indecisiveness unintentionally runs parallel with the indecision of its story and characters.

The story is directly based on Robert Durst a wealthy son of a New York real estate mogul. He witnessed his mother’s death at a young age and predictably was never the same. He was eventually arrested and tried for murder in 2003 and is suspected to be involved in other unsolved crimes linked to the Durst family. He is portrayed in the film by Ryan Gosling but the character name is changed to David Marks (all other characters based off of real people also have their names changed). Early in the film we see him rebel against his upper class roots. He marries a girl from a humble working class background, Katie McCarthy (Kirsten Dunst), they move to the country together and seemingly live their happiest days together. They set up a health food store naming it “All Good Things”. But the shop and their whole life style is being funded by David’s dad Sanford Marks (Frank Langella) who is constantly trying to encourage David to come and work for the family business, which he eventually does.

In enters the indecision, he chooses the job based on feelings of obligation rather than need or want. His wife didn’t want him to do it, and he has ultimately doomed their happiness. But impending doom is weaved into the narrative before even their fairy-tale like time in the country. Marks is shown mumbling to himself incoherently, and it’s established early on that he was present for his mother’s suicide. The film utilises a framing device to show this, it flashes back from David at his trial to the events that lead him there, with Gosling looking surprisingly convincing in old man makeup. His dark past and questionable psyche makes his romance with Katie tragic, she is initially blissfully unaware but her realisation changes her character for the worst.

Dunst portrays her as the epitome of sweetness. She is completely sincere and hides nothing, she is initially intrigued by his unique differences but eventually becomes aware of just how deep they go and what they are rooted in. He never talks about himself to her and she marries him without ever knowing about his mother or his personal demons. She is at last enlightened by David’s long-time friend Deborah Lehrman (Lily Rabe). Who breaks the information in an overly sunny and blasé fashion, when seeing Marks’ other female friends his choice of Katie as a wife seems far more puzzling. His mysterious past slowly breaks free of its repression following the revelation that Katie is pregnant, finally showing his rage tinted colours and requesting with no real reasons that they shouldn’t become parents. Indecision again with Katie being torn over whether to proceed with an abortion. Adding to the already incredibly dark tone, with a work obsessed David regrettably absent. The sweet and hope filled girl she once was dies, another victim of his scarred mental state.

The first two thirds of the film revolve almost solely around the tragic romance of David and Katie. They clash over her decision to pursue a medical career. It constantly builds and builds with the viewer painfully aware that this cannot end well. His long hidden dark emotions emerge often because of their dying relationship. His worst actions are left ambiguous, remaining off-screen; we are only shown Katie’s true terror at their aftermath. Their relationship is truly interesting and you really fear for her as well as sympathise with David because of his demons. This makes the sudden shift the film takes all the more worse. The shift links into the seeming indecision that the film has. For the first hour it chronicles a tragic romance, but from then on every aspect of it shifts. The narrative techniques, the time period, characters, everything. It turns into a far less compelling film, becoming a poor crime mystery genre film that sees David go on the run. Now, I’ll avoid spoilers as best I can but I have to write about this part of the film because it’s a significant chunk of the narrative and not a twist ending. Marks’ is suspected of various things and decides to flee to Texas, where he is seen in a costume far less convincing than his old man one but deliberately so. He meets Melvin Bump (played by will-always-be-the-library-detective-from-Seinfeld, Philip Baker Hall) and shit goes down.

The films indecisiveness is painfully apparent in its concluding third. It’s debatable that the awkward shift is unavoidable due to the true basis of its story. But All Good Things doesn’t seem to have any problems taking liberties with aspects of the story other than this. Who did what and why within the criminal acts in question are played around with endlessly. They have never been proved in real life but the film isn’t hesitant in pointing the finger at those it believes committed them. It changes and fabricates what it needs to in order to make the story more compelling, but this doesn’t prevent the incredible drop off in quality in the films closing chapters. Which are a little stupid and mostly uninteresting, the dark tone inexplicably lightens given the subject matter and it arrives at its feature length running time not at a stride but crawling on bloody stumps.

It’s not due to lack of talent that the film concludes as lacklustre. I hadn’t heard of director Andrew Jarecki before but his previous work (Capturing the Friedmans) was nominated for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature. His direction is simply fine; with rare shots verging on fantastic (particularly the shot of Marks’ sitting at his desk as a building is constructed behind him). Ryan Gosling is one of the best young actors working today but he never really gets to show it. He gets the frustrated and demon filled side of David Marks’ down but never gets to embody an all the way snapped version of him, with the director instead opting for ambiguity. Dunst is fine as the sugar sweet Katie but her downfall is never really more than a few depressed expressions. The mystery was never solved in reality and the film decisions to incriminate its characters are far too predictable, it throws some red herrings into the mix but they’re not overly effective. It just can’t decide if it wants to be a romantic drama or a crime mystery.

The troubled and tragic romance of David and Katie Marks is a compelling plot point, it promises a thrilling pay off that just never materialises. It has similarities to another Ryan Gosling drama/romance film: Blue Valentine, and if anything All Good Things made me realise how good that film actually is. It’s two thirds a decent film but the conclusions commit a greater crime than any committed by its characters.