Diane: Works of Mercy, by David Bax
When you think of winter light, the things that come to mind—after the Bergman film, that is—probably involve overcast days or sunbeams bouncing off of snowbanks. But, really, we who are fortunate enough spend most of the winter indoors. Those cold, dark months are illuminated, more than anything else, by a warm halogen glow shared, with any luck, with our loved ones. Kent Jones’ Diane, which takes place in wintertime (and, not coincidentally, in Massachusetts) has a visual palette composed of that same, soft radiance and an emotional grace defined by the reverent, spiritual sense of togetherness it symbolizes.
Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a widower and apparent retiree who spends her days visiting relatives in the hospital, dropping off casseroles for debilitated farmers, dishing out free meals for the needy and otherwise helping people wherever and whenever she can. The largest allotment of her mental and emotional energy goes to worrying and trying to offer assistance to her grown son, Brian (Jake Lacy), a heroin addict. What little time she has left, she fills up chatting and eating with her family (including Estelle Parsons as her aunt) and her best friend, Bobbie (Andrea Martin). Jones’ screenplay sometimes leaps months forward at a time, quietly observing how things change even as they don’t.
We know that Diane goes to church, though her religion and denomination aren’t specified, but the entire film is infused with the works of mercy observed by Christians, especially Catholics. Those works are divided into the corporal (feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc.) and the spiritual (forgive offenses, comfort the afflicted, etc.) but they do not provide any exceptions that would excuse one from helping people who don’t want to be helped. Diane’s difficulty is not getting to all of her charitable appointments on time but weathering the verbal abuse she receives from Brian for the crime of bringing him food and encouraging him to go to the doctor. Instead of reducing Brian to the role of ingrate, though, Jones, Place and Lacy together illustrate where his obstinacy comes from; Diane, after all, is often just as unwilling to accept help.
If she wanted it, she’d have plenty of people to help her. In practice, after all, belonging to a church is just as much about having a community as it is about one’s beliefs. Others, like the neighbor whose only response to Brian’s torment is to yell at him to keep it down, may not value human kinship in the same way Diane does. Yet, when she watches a soup kitchen visitor, a man who has almost nothing, give thanks to God before eating the dinner she’s just handed him, Place’s exquisite, subtle performance leads us to wonder whether Diane ever feels that same spiritual fulfillment or if her entire life is about seeking it.
Diane does seem to find some semblance of peace and joy in her extended family, one of those sprawling, intergenerational clans in which it’s not really important exactly how everyone’s related, just that they’re together. In perhaps the movie’s best scene, Diane sits in a kitchen with her older relatives, mostly just listening as they swap stories and jokes while the children of some niece or nephew or other occasionally dart in from other rooms to grab cookies off of a plate. It’s a gorgeously placid moment and a perfectly balanced counterweight to scenes of Brian berating Diane for judging and nagging him, which are also portraits of familial love.
Brian isn’t the only family member with whom Diane has a contentious relationship. She and her terminally ill sister (Deirdre O’Connell) are best friends but, we eventually learn, there is a stubborn bit of water that refuses to pass under the bridge. The Catholic church says that the works of mercy can be performed as charity or, if needed, as penance. Jones’ delicate screenplay patiently reveals that Diane is motivated by more than a little of the latter. Diane is as deeply caring and kind as its protagonist, whose path to being sanctified in the eyes of God is—frustratingly but all too humanly—overshadowed by her reluctance to forgive herself.