I Think We’re Alone Now: Chaos Theory, by Jim Rohner
For those of us unfamiliar with the finer points of thermodynamics, entropy can be understood as a lack of order or predictability or as an expression of randomness or lack of information in a system. In a random universe in which entropy is increasing, the weight of apparent meaninglessness can cause a person to atrophy. Sometimes, the best remedy is moving just for the sake of motion. By his own account, it’s an attempt to fight off entropy that motivates Del (Peter Dinklage) to clean out the homes in his quiet New York neighborhood, their former residents unable to do so on account of a nameless, nebulous affliction that has seemingly wiped out all life in the world with the exception of Del.
Del, alone and content, has reshaped his random and meaningless universe into one of order and routine. Every day he drives his beaten down pickup truck though the empty suburban streets, clearing out the decayed corpses and fridges of rotten food, wiping down countertops no longer used and making beds no longer slept in before spray painting a white X on the street to mark the house as clean. Every X correlates to a matching X on a town map he keeps in what is now his home, the basement of a college library. There, he preserves photographs from the deceased’s homes, precisely catalogued and neatly filed. There is no reason for Del to be doing any of this, but doing it gives him reason.
Del is alone in his universe, but he is not lonely. Rather, he is in control; he is stable. The camera of director/cinematographer Reed Morano makes us very aware that this reality exists simultaneously for and because of Del, always staging him in the center of wide angle lenses that border on exaggeration. This aesthetic conveys a lack of concern for anything outside the geographical and metaphysical borders in which he exists. It is not by accident that the first time Del is framed slightly off-centered is after the arrival of Grace (Elle Fanning).
If Del is order, Grace is chaos. Though not The Odd Couple, Grace and Del approach their post-apocalyptic world with different attitudes: Del is content to stay where he is, but Grace is running away from something; Del goes through the motions, but Grace asks why he bothers; Del wants to be left alone, but Grace wants him to open up. Literally overnight a lack of predictability is introduced into Del’s universe. “Aren’t you lonely here?” she asks of him during an otherwise silent dinner. “I was lonely when there were 1600 other people living in this fucking town” he replies with finality. Grace challenges Del to be open, but openness requires one to be vulnerable. Del hasn’t had to be vulnerable for a while. It seems likely that he hasn’t wanted to be vulnerable for even longer.
Post-apocalyptic movies come in all shapes and sizes (The Road, Delicatessen, Twelve Monkeys), but no matter the genre or director, the truly great ones always keep the question, “what caused it?” at arm’s length in order to focus instead on answering the question, “what has it caused?” I Think We’re Alone Now is such a film, joining previous greats of the genre because its focus, both figuratively and literally, is set on telling an emotionally resonant story. This begins, first and foremost, with Mike Makowsky’s screenplay. Understandably minimalist in dialogue, the script is nonetheless admirable in how effectively it constructs distinct lead characters who supplement each other as foils. Other screenwriters might be tempted to make both Grace and Del exaggerations in their spiritual opposition to each other but Makowsky avoids such a temptation, creating characters that are distinctive on the surface yet similar enough at their cores that it’s easy to believe that their opposition could gradually give way to connection. Dinklage in particular is exceptional, his lack of showy dialogue requiring him to convey his philosophical shiftings largely through body language and ocular engagement.
Of course, at the end of the day, what makes I Think We’re Alone Now so resonant is the direction of Morano, whose expertise with cinematography allows her to craft the kinds of visuals that enable film to tell a story like no other medium can. Using naturalistic and available lighting, measured and even staging, and wide lenses for close ups are all techniques that Morano utilizes to make the universe we’re viewing a perfect reflection of the emotional reality in which Del and Grace live. At times purposely spectacular – a nighttime scene lit almost entirely by the sporadic exploding of fireworks comes to mind – Morano’s shooting style is most often a mix of beautiful symmetry and haunting subtlety. For all we know, the slightly muted colors spreading across the sky while the sun sits on the horizon could signify the end of all things or the advent of new potential. The ambiguity is further accented by the vivid solid colors that stand out in aggressively sharp contrast during the film’s final act.
It’s the final act, however, that stands out as the film’s most glaring weakness. The concluding act of the film corrals the other two credited big name actors, Paul Giamatti and Charlotte Gainsbourg, to help usher the film’s emotional journey to the conclusion we knew was coming but in a manner that seems to belong in a film of another genre. The path that their characters take the film would feel less muddled if clearer work had been done previously for the themes that they introduce but even the somewhat bungled execution allows Morano’s visuals to shine (literally) and a satisfying fruition Del and Grace’s arcs to come. For both the characters and the audience the predictability is restored – it just comes about in an unpredictable way.
My recollection is that Twelve Monkeys spends more time in the past while they investigate what caused the apocalypse than in the post-apocalyptic future.