We are all faced with loneliness at one time or another, perhaps for longer periods than we can understand or accept. In a modern world, with all the connectivity our technology and our society have to offer, we may still be confronted by the looming threat of isolation. This condition of being alone, of lacking a friend, lover, or confidant in which to share your most personal self is the subject of “Four,” written and directed by Joshua Sanchez. In its relatively brief 76 minutes, the film provides a beautiful commentary on this state, a quiet and poetic meditation on the solitude of the human condition.
In an unnamed New York town, two couples come together under the cover of darkness on a steamy Fourth of July night. The teenaged June (Emory Cohen) leaves his parents’ barbeque to meet middle-aged Joe (Wendell Pierce), a man he’s met on the Internet, in an abandoned parking lot. Meanwhile, Joe’s daughter, Abigayle (Aja Naomi King), believing her father is away on business, is taking care of her sickly mother for the evening. Needing to escape the illness that pervades her house, she calls Dexter (E.J. Bonilla) to pick her up. Riders join drivers in their respective cars, and the night begins.
June and Abigayle are immediately on guard, detached and uneasy, so Joe and Dexter ply them with questions and jokes to get the new relationships on their feet. June hasn’t come out to his parents, nor does he ever plan to; with the understanding of personal experience, Joe tries to show him the futility of this. Dexter, lacking maturity but full of raging teenage hormones, is hoping to get Abigayle into his bed, but she keeps him at an arm’s length by refusing to answer any of his more intimate questions. As the separate storylines interweave across the next few hours of the night, the two relationships find unlikely parallels, and editing successfully highlights the overlaps without hitting the point too hard. Rather, by maintaining the established pattern of intercutting throughout the film, and thus maintaining the expectation of similarities among the stories, their eventual divergences are made all the more powerful.
Sanchez has translated the story from a play by Christopher Shinn, and the dialogue retains a particular flair of playwriting in its word choice and rhythm. The words are more unusual than those we’ve come to expect on film, the phrasing a suggestion of prose and poetry. Sitting in the theater, Joe describes to June why he loves going to the movies: “The lights go down, like singing into a collective dream; suddenly, you’re anonymous.” Though perhaps lacking in stark realism, the lines draw the audience deep inside the characters’ world, painting a second picture not seen on screen. And the deliveries only compound this expressiveness. While all four leads are great, Pierce steals the show with his multi-layered performance that is often best at its quietest: small facial movements and seemingly inarticulate grunts illustrate everything the character is unable to say aloud.
The heat and humidity of the midsummer night is reflected in the film’s score and sound. The music track, composed by Bryan Senti, is primarily instrumental, and though sparsely used, becomes wonderfully evocative. Single plaintive chords punctuate the hot, hushed darkness, fingers of hope and lust and grief reaching out from the night’s depths into the dimmed light emanating from the characters as they form their tenuous bonds. Sound effects are amplified, echoing through the silence and the emptiness of the town, of the houses, of the motel room. Even in one another’s company, endless space radiates around each individual.
The photography is straightforward, done with a handheld camera that spends most of its time in close-ups on the characters’ faces. In the four scenes that introduce the protagonists, extreme zooms fill the screen with a face, one at a time: the audience’s first peek at the characters is more personal than anything they’ll each experience that night. In two of the rare long shots, exterior views of their homes capture June, then Abigayle, standing at a window, looking toward the outside world. Framed by the glass panes, inside staring out, the characters are clearly sectioned off, detached. And yet, the thin and fragile skin standing between them and everything else is so clearly permeable. All it takes to destroy the walls they’ve put up is one punch through the glass.
In a story that ends very much like it begins, we see the complicated nature of our existence, and the pain that accompanies deceit and a lack of communication, even if it’s just with oneself. Surrounded by friends and family, and connected through technological and physical interactions alike, it is still more than possible to keep our most inner selves veiled from the outside world. But to bury our truths is to hide from ourselves completely, a dangerous proposition that can have far-reaching, unpredictable consequences. As Joe says to June, once he realizes how alone the boy really is, “you want someone to make you feel real.” If we hide from ourselves, we will ultimately become so solitary as to be invisible, not even able to reach out and touch the person lying in the bed next to us. [A]