Criticwire’s New Classic series examines films released in the last ten years that are posed to stand the test of time.
Dir: John Magary
Criticwire Average: B+
“You know, the naked yearning coming out of you is getting a little tough to stomach.”
John Magary’s restless debut feature “The Mend” opens with a physical struggle and ends with a disquieting absence. In between, an oblique sense of dread reigns over an uneasy party, a series of breakups, and a family coming together and being torn apart once again. The movie brims with a raw vitality, a rough, feel-it-in-your-nerve-endings spark of life, as if the world is falling apart one minor crisis at a time.
“The Mend” traps its audience in a tense environment that undergoes a series of changes, but its suffocating atmosphere remains the same. Although it’s ostensibly about two New York brothers — Mat (Josh Lucas), a reckless, destructive fuck-up reminiscent of Johnny from Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” and Alan (Stephen Plunkett), an emotionally repressed legal aid lawyer trying to maintain the surfaces in his life at all costs — who reconnect after being apart for some time, “The Mend” has less to do with contrived family squabbles than how internal suffering can bleed into external environments. In effect, it’s the story of two open wounds trying to indirectly express their pain to each other, and infecting their world in the process.
It’s best to approach it with as little information as possible, but the basic premise will suffice as an effective introduction: On the eve of their impeding vacation to Quebec, Alan and his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) throw a party in their apartment. Amid the diverse group of guests, Farrah eventually realizes that Mat is in the apartment and he and Alan connect over the “strange air” at the party. When Farah and Alan leave for their flight the next morning, Mat remains in the apartment and eventually invites his on-again-off-again girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen) and her son Ronnie (Cory Nichols) to stay with him. Describing any more of the plot, such as it is, would do a disservice to the film’s many curious surprises, but the literal story of “The Mend” is a small component of its larger tapestry. Magary filters his relationship drama through jaundiced anxiety in form and content: acerbic dialogue, a nightmarish New York landscape, and the double-punch of Joseph Krings’ dissociative editing and Judd Greenstein and Michi Wiancko’s hectic string score. He strives to place you in the same emotional headspace as his subjects, festering on the edge of a bottomless pit all the while ignoring its very existence.
Contributing to the general tension, Magary constantly shifts modes, settling just long enough to the lull the audience into a false sense of security before pulling the rug out from underneath. It starts off as a “party film,” before transitioning into a sharp character study, then moves through dysfunctional family drama, an aborted love triangle, and a drunken buddy comedy. The film’s vignette narrative begets a jagged energy, kept at a low boil until Magary turns up the heat in its final minutes. Yet, “The Mend” never devolves into a disjunctive mess; its coherence lies within its fragmentation, in the same way that life starts and stalls, shifts and swings, crashes and burns. While Magary’s visual style keeps the schema consistent, the narrative spins on its own axis, deliriously indifferent to the confines of traditional act structure or rise-and-fall action. “The Mend” just snarls its way down its very own path.
“The Mend” may cover familiar emotional terrain — urban alienation, fractured fraternal bonds, masculine angst — but Magary successfully defamiliarizes these feelings by externalizing them within the framework, rather than simply explicating them through dialogue. Mat and Alan walk through the movie perpetually half-awake, and Magary reflects that mindset by packing the film with casual strangeness bordering on the surreal — Alan’s college friend singing madrigals in the early morning, a crushed dog underneath a bookcase, a stranger yelling for someone to save him out of his apartment window. Moreover, Alan and Farrah’s apartment, the film’s main location, adopts the psychological states of its characters; the frequent power outages and broken bathroom lock takes on significance solely by contributing to the frustrated environment. Chaos accrues incrementally in “The Mend,” with recurring problems and mishaps contributing to the general decay of the character’s fractured internal selves. Magary captures dread as a force of nature rather than merely wallpaper.
While “The Mend’s” layered tone may reach out to its audience indirectly, the film’s performances are uncomfortably immediate, overflowing with volatility as well as an aching humanity. Conversations are terse and fraught with nerves; people seem ready to pounce for reasons only they can understand. Lucas gives the performance of his career, embodying Mat with a unique visceral intensity; he operates like a virus, materializing in places and infecting them with his anger and wit. Owen is just as powerful, conveying Andrea’s contradictory desires and good-natured impulses without turning her into a two-dimensional portrait. But it’s Plunkett who’s the revelation, exemplifying a passive rage that’s hardly ever depicted on screen. He communicates Alan’s emotional damage almost entirely through suggestive facial reactions and exasperated delivery. A walking time bomb covered in a thick layer of sarcastic detachment, Alan functions as a foil to Mat’s live-wire aggression, creating the sense that he’s truly the second half of an irreparable whole.
As hard as you might try, you don’t choose the films that affect you the most; they just appear and force you to reckon with them. I saw “The Mend” without any prior expectations, and it completely floored me. Despite having very little connection to the actual material, it was the rare film that felt like it was speaking directly to me. It acutely understood the dissonant chaos of my internal life, and how that deeply affected my perception of reality. It clarified my own emotional instability by depicting it not as showy performance but as an injury carried around for years. “The Mend” got to the heart of a fundamental truth within myself, and though articulating that truth has been notoriously difficult, it has something to do with the predictability of stepping on forgotten glass, and how the blood from that self-inflicted wound can stain those around you. It’s unlikely that I would have had such a strong reaction if I was at a different moment in my life, but for the past several months, it was the mysterious light in the corner of the room screaming out to me, “This is you. This is you. This is who you are.” For better or worse, it was right. This is me. This is me. This is who I am.