From the opening scenes of “Gabriel” (read our review), the debut feature from writer/director Lou Howe, the audience is immediately tossed into the ongoing tumult that is the life of the title character, a troubled young man brilliantly played by Rory Culkin. We’re not given any clues to the drama, other than a years-old love letter from a girl named Alice, to whom Gabriel plans to propose. While this seems odd (if he’s planning to propose, why doesn’t he know where Alice lives?), it’s also instantly compelling. We want to find out who Gabriel is, where he’s coming from, and why he won’t answer his phone.
As the story unfolds, we meet his mother (a wearily overprotective Deirdre O’Connell) and brother (an upright David Call), both of whom have clearly been through the emotional wringer due to Gabriel’s frequent mental health ups-and-downs. We also learn that Gabriel is just back from an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital; he’s been granted a trial period to see how fit he is to handle everyday life. Turns out, he’s not very fit at all. Though Gabriel’s particular mental illness is never specified, Culkin’s portrayal of someone whose connection to reality is at times quite tenuous feels ferociously real. He is a gifted actor able to convey a tormented inner life with very subtle physical manifestations. It’s a quiet powerhouse of a performance.
“Gabriel”—and Gabriel, for that matter—is often tough to watch, simply because the pain of his situation, which radiates out to those who know and love him, is so very palpable. This is, however, a compliment, and a credit both to Culkin and to Howe, who confidently directs his cast and controls the dramatic progress. (His recent recognition as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” is obviously warranted.)
We recently caught up with the pair at the Tribeca Film Festival, where “Gabriel” had its world premiere in the World Narrative Competition.