No Respect for Death, by David Bax
There’s a certain kind of person who will be drawn like a magnet toward Gus Van Sant’s newest – and likely worst – film, Restless. This person is a teenager, one who has probably been shy and picked on for most of her or his life. This person has only recently learned to accept and embrace her or his differences. Likely a newly born-again evangelical preaching to everyone he meets, this person is constantly finding new ways to call attention to her or his iconoclasm, trying on idiosyncrasies in order to test the limits of the world’s acceptance of otherness. This person is annoying.
It’s okay to be annoying, though, when you’re a teenager. It’s expected. Teenagers who aren’t annoying come off as precocious and that’s annoying in itself. Van Sant, however, is not a teenager. As a full grown adult and a director who has made a number of very good, very smart films, it’s hard not to be suspicious of him while watching Restless. Certainly he must know what he’s made and how unceasingly mawkish and pandering it is.
It’s not just that the film is sentimental. There are two main modes in which Van Sant works. Sometimes, he is a formalist (the dreadful Psycho remake; the incomparable Gerry) and sometimes he is a sentimentalist. His most recent film, Milk, was exuberantly, zealously emotional and it is one of the best American films of the past five years. In that case, Van Sant sold the poignancy because he seemed to be wholly invested in it. He believed in what he was selling. Here, as with his 2000 film Finding Forrester, it’s almost impossible to find any reason other than a paycheck for his directing.
The main characters are Enoch (Henry Hopper) and Annabel (the criminally wasted Mia Wasikowska). Those are really the characters’ names and that’s only a symptom of how thoroughly affected the screenplay is. Enoch has lived with his aunt (Jane Adams) since the car crash that killed his parents and left him in a coma. Since awakening, he has dropped out of high school and, obsessed with death, spends much of his free time going to the funerals of strangers. This is more proof that the film is made for teens. It assumes that its audience hasn’t yet seen Harold and Maude. At one of these services, for a young man who died of cancer, he meets Annabel, a like-minded young outsider who happens to be dying of a brain tumor.
Not content to merely be derivative and corny, the film is also compelled to layer on the eccentricities. One would think, in a world that has already survived Garden State and Juno, that this kind of self-conscious quirk would be strictly avoided due to audience overexposure. Still, Annabel simply must have a preoccupation with songbirds. Enoch, if you’ll brace yourself, has an imaginary friend in the form of the ghost of a Japanese World War II kamikaze pilot. They like to play Battleship together. Angry yet?
In one of the film’s big, emotional scenes – the ones where a character yells and freaks out – Hiroshi the ghost tells Enoch that he has “no respect for death.” This criticism could just as easily be leveled at the film itself. It uses death to amuse or shock or simply as a shortcut to explain any character’s motivations or actions. For a movie about death, not one of the demises portrayed is real or honest. At best they are symbols for the fleeting nature of teen romance.
Annabel’s brain tumor doesn’t even get the opportunity to be a metaphor. It’s merely a plot device used to give the characters’ relationship urgency and a lazy catalyst for Enoch’s confronting the death of his parents. Since the tumor isn’t real, its effects apparently don’t have to be either. She manages to be beautiful or graceful throughout her ordeal, leading me to wonder if the film’s characters would stick by her side if her illness weren’t so pleasant and acceptable. Annabel is dying throughout the entire movie but may we all perish as romantically as she.
Setting aside all the glibness inspired by this cheap and obvious film, there is cause for more than just dismissal here. There in indeed cause for indignation. Restless is an insult to any person who has ever died and any person who has ever dealt with someone else’s death. It is, essentially, an insult to everyone.