“For Ellen,” Korean-American writer/director So Yong Kim’s third film after breakout indie dramas “In Between Days” and “Treeless Mountain,” is shot in the same style of her preceding films. The way she films long uninterrupted takes of Joby (Paul Dano), a self-absorbed young rocker, absent father and “For Ellen” lead protagonist, is fascinating, albeit more in theory than in practice. By making us experience the weight of dead air surrounding virtually every beat in Joby’s dialogue, we grow to feel trapped with him through a series of self-inflicted travails and cascading bleak moments.
Joby’s character-defining dickish-ness doesn’t soften the more time we spend with him. When we meet Joby, the lead singer of a metal band, he’s mulling over the potential consequences of his impending divorce with hostile wife Susan (Margarita Levieva). For Ellen catches Joby during a weird period of emotional clarity. He’s becoming aware of everything he might lose if he agrees to Susan’s terms (Jena Malone also appears as Dano’s girlfriend).
So on the one hand, Joby’s shown to be abusive, forgetful and petulant when he doesn’t get his way. He also carries himself like a person that only reacts to the people as a means of getting of humoring them until they give him what he wants. But on the other hand, in the plot of “For Ellen,” Joby’s usually defined more by a state of panic and shock than any other emotion. He’s shocked to find his life crumbling around him when his band refuses to humor his sudden urge to re-track their music. And he’s even more taken aback when Susan and her bullying lawyer gives him an ultimatum: sign the divorce papers and get the house—but lose custody of his young daughter Ellen in the process.
Unfortunately, Kim doesn’t give us nearly enough space away from Joby’s headspace in order for her latest film to ever become more than a thoughtful but punishing experience. So in “For Ellen,” we spend all of our time with a young man paralyzed at the thought of losing his precious daughter. Dano’s performance pretty much carries the film. That’s not just a complement, it’s a statement of fact: in almost every shot of the film, the camera is either trained on Joby or someone looking at Joby. Every major plot point in the film revolves around him. Even the beautiful panoramic shots of flat, desolate Mid-western landscapes are an extension of Joby’s emotionally brittle frame of mind.
Spending so much time trapped with Joby is sometimes agonizing in an exhilarating way. But as “For Ellen” wears on, you realize that every pause in Dano’s naturalistic, off-the-cuff dialogue is pregnant. So a scene like the one where he and Ellen try to bond when he takes her to the toy story really suffers. Because the joke in this scene is also entirely a matter of distended timing.
In the scene, Ellen pensively walks around a small section of a toy store, seeming to scan every item while she weighs her options. Joby just passively follows her, not knowing what to think or say or do at this point. Suddenly, Ellen turns a corner and almost automatically reaches for a toy. The humor of this abrupt decision stems from the idea that we’ve been watching the gears in Ellen’s head move.
But that’s the same principle of how time works as the kind that Kim uses when she films a couple of much darker and fleetingly transfixing scenes, like one where Joby drunkenly performs a stripper-inspired dance in an empty bar. Almost every scene achieves the same effect even though some sequences are obviously meant to be lighter than others. Watching “For Ellen” is a grinding experience and one whose monotony eventually makes Kim’s signature approach feel cheap and inauthentic. [C]