Five Nights in Maine: Thin Intimacy, by Scott Nye
Grief is a monster of a thing to live with, and a nightmare to depict in fiction. Too many contradictory impulses, too many unwise remarks…too much sadness for the internal barometer that says audiences demand happy endings and redemption. This is why so many movies about young men grieving involve them meeting attractive young women. The brutal honesty of the process – long sleepless nights, abandoned relationships, hours upon hours of crying – just doesn’t fit in with commercial assumptions. Maris Curran’s new film, Five Nights in Maine (in theaters Friday), isn’t afraid of that honesty. It welcomes discomfort, fear, and stagnation. But it also uses those emotions as crutches, as reasons not to venture too far afield, and ultimately retreats into safe emotional territory precisely when it needed to press steadily onward.
Sherwin (David Oyelowo) has just lost his wife, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg), in a car crash. Unable to eat, sleep, plan for her funeral or his future, or do much of anything besides drink and smoke and stay home alone, he finally decides to take one chance. He’ll drive from Atlanta to Maine to visit his mother-in-law, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest), who’s dying and whom Fiona visited just days before the accident. Lucinda is the only person who can possibly share in his agony. Maybe she can even extend Fiona’s life by revealing things about her he did not know. But she’s not an easy person to get along with. Her caretaker, Ann (Rosie Perez), tries to smooth things along, but her role limits this ability. Sherwind and Lucinda play nice at first. And then they start accusing one another, and saying things they don’t mean, and wielding their tragedy as a weapon (or a shield), and wandering around the essential problem – when the only thing that binds you to someone is another person, you don’t have much left when that person’s gone.
Nobody explicitly mentions race, and there’s little reason to think Lucinda dislikes him for that reason, but Curran (who also wrote the screenplay) draws some interesting tension from the natural discomfort that comes with unfamiliar surroundings as a person of a minority race. This is most clear when he goes out for a morning run, only to hear increasingly-loud gunfire nearby. Rather than yell out that they’re shooting near him, Sherwin books it out of the woods, only to discover upon his return that he wasn’t exactly being shot at – it’s open hunting season. Curran doesn’t dwell on why Sherwin would leap to the conclusion that the locals are after him, nor does she need to. Rural areas are inherently frightening for citydwellers, a paranoia that’s heightened by historical and contemporary prejudice.
Curran increases this paranoia by keeping her camera tightly focused on her performers, rarely even giving us a sense of the rooms or general layout of the house in which the bulk of the film takes place. Her style emphasizes how cut off Sherwin and Lucinda are from their surroundings, how isolated they’ve become. Cinematographer Sofian El Fani previously shot Blue is the Warmest Color, and while the results here are not nearly as dynamic, the level of intimacy he achieves with the cast is similarly striking. He has a way of remaining attuned to the actors’ movements in a handheld space without creating a messy, unreadable frame, working very well in concert with them to keep their volatile emotions at the center.
The film’s intimacy and honesty doesn’t really push past these routine interactions and minor breakdowns. The drama never gets truly explosive, the insights never wildly deep, and much of what was a bit mysterious at the beginning of the film refreshingly stays mysterious. This would have made for a fine, low-key drama about incompatible dependency…had it been content to be so. The final five or ten minutes of the film, while far from flying off the rails or anything, thoroughly betrays the sense of inescapability surrounding grief that it had so sufficiently explored. It trades that honest uncertainty for comforting resolution, coming to the pat and obvious conclusion that “tomorrow is another day” and other such platitudes so obvious, they do not need stating in a film ostensibly made for and by adults.
Had the earlier drama been more incisive, or the conclusion more restless, I would have walked away invigorated by Curran and her cast’s discipline and rigor. Instead I was reminded how desperate films of any scale are to reassure and comfort audiences, leaving us unchallenged and with very little to think about after the lights have come up.