When “Gabriel,” the debut feature from writer/director Lou Howe, begins, it seems like any other romantic drama about two young people who are in love. Our title character (Rory Culkin) takes a bus out to his girlfriend’s dorm. He bangs on her door, a wadded up piece of a letter balled in his fist. When a different girl answers, she informs him that the girl he is looking for doesn’t live there, especially when he tells her that the address on the envelope is several years old. “This is a freshman dorm,” the girl says. And that’s when it becomes very clear that this movie is not your typical romantic drama; it’s far more unhinged than that.
The rest of “Gabriel” unfolds with an admirable single-mindedness and focus: Gabriel is a kid who is just being released from an institution and is coming home to spend time with his family at their lovely country home. His family tries desperately to treat him with kid gloves without ever seeming overtly doting. His brother Matthew (David Call) is compassionate but firm, while his mother Meredith (Deirdre O’Connell) checks and double-checks with Gabriel, making sure he’s feeling alright and has taken all of his pills. There’s a scene early on at the dinner table when Gabriel grabs a large knife and, sensing his family’s uneasiness, brings it to his throat. It’s a joke, but the entire scene is infused with palpable dread. With him, anything is possible.
And it’s hard not to feel the same way about Culkin. This is an incredibly talented actor who has been able to show, in various movies ranging from “You Can Count On Me” to “Scream 4,” flashes of the brilliance that’s on display in “Gabriel.” He is an actor who is utterly fearless, and who inhabits this role in a way that few actors ever do. What’s so incredible is that the character is incredibly single-minded: he wants to get back to his girlfriend Alice, by any means necessary (and there are some huge hiccups that he encounters). But there’s a depth and variety to Culkin’s performance that doesn’t make it feel entirely one-note.
Early on, before he even gets back home, there’s a sequence where he is talking to a small child on the bus. The child’s mother scolds Gabriel, and at first it seems unnecessary, since what they were doing was fairly harmless. There is still a streak of potential danger in that interaction, although as an audience it’s hard to pinpoint it. What’s so incredible too is that Gabriel seems to know that there’s something wrong with him, because of the way he is able to coldly diagnose his symptoms and talk about the mental illness that befell his father (and left his family utterly shattered). Yet he just can’t help himself, going off his medication, and engaging in increasingly destructive behavior; he knows how wrong he is.
Howe and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield have staged the action in winter, and basked the entire movie in chilly blue tones. There’s nothing warm in “Gabriel;” it’s all icy harshness and blank, bled-out barrenness. This is fitting, given Gabriel’s mental state: he must feel, in his own way, like some kind of broken soldier in the post-apocalyptic landscape of his own mind, fighting, desperately, to return to the girl he left behind (even if she doesn’t see it the same way).
When Gabriel’s search for his long lost love becomes more frantic and harried, eventually taking him into New York City to reconnect with the people and places from his childhood, the movie becomes increasingly difficult to watch — it makes you nervous. And when he finally does find his girl, played wonderfully by sorely under-utilized young actress Emily Meade, the tension becomes unbearable. The uneasiness of the movie is taken to its logical extreme and it’s a brilliant sequence to watch unfold, even if you’re doing from behind a gate made up of your own fingers.
And if there’s a problem with “Gabriel,” it’s that, in its quest to present the monomaniacal focus of Gabriel, that it leaves some texture and dimension behind. This is a movie about an obsessed character, and the movie is similarly obsessed. But there seem to have been moments, of genuine warmth, or humor, or absurdism, that could have been engaged with but weren’t, in an effort to put you more fully inside this character’s head. It’s as admirable as it is frustrating, and always keeps you at arms distance from making that emotional connection with the character that it desperately needs. Because the movie is so caught up in physicality and distressed psychology of Gabriel, lovingly detailing his tics and outbursts, he never comes across as anything but hopelessly broken, even when you feel like there might be more there.
But it’s hard to fault a movie that sets out to do something and accomplishes it to such a full degree. There was a danger, when the movie began, that Culkin was going to act-with-a-capital-A. But as the movie goes along, he fully inhabits the character to a degree that is downright shocking. This is the kind of breakthrough role that young actors are rarely afforded, and the kind of performance that they can rarely pull off. “Gabriel” often feels like a feat, for both writer/director Howe and Culkin. It’s a movie that might not be easy to watch, but is well worth the effort. If you’re the nervous type, you might want to take your meds beforehand. [A-]