Documentarian Alan Berliner is frequently the focus of his movies, but his intentions extend beyond his neuroses. Rather than the star of the show, he’s a vessel for bigger ideas and evades the perils of self-indulgence that could result from putting himself in front of the camera.
That tricky balance is on display better than ever in the stirring “First Cousin Once Removed,” which deepens an oeuvre that has already dealt with the tender issues of father-son relationships (“Nobody’s Business”) and insomnia (“Wide Awake”) by exploring his fears of senility to devastating effect. Using a powerful focal point to manifest the movie’s central concerns, Berliner makes his interest in the topic relevant to everyone.
His case study is Edwin Honig, the first cousin of Berliner’s mother, a bond that gives the movie its title. But there’s more about Honig — once a world-class poet and founder of Brown University’s creative writing program — that has been removed beyond his relationship to the filmmaker. Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease before the movie begins, Honig has lost grasp of his identity or any firm understanding of his relationships to those around him. Still haunted from his own father’s death from the disease, Berliner sets out to understand the nature of Honig’s increasing frailty by working to unlock the older man’s dwindling memories.
Equal parts psychological mystery and lyrical treatise on the passage of time, “First Cousin Once Removed” predominantly centers on Berliner’s interrogation of Honig in his Rhode Island home during various stages of his condition (the specific chronology remains unclear). From the outset, Berliner utilizes an aggressively fractured narrative that replicates his subject’s state of confusion by showing the filmmaker arriving at Honig’s home several times in succession with various results: Sometimes Honig recognizes his relative, and other times Berliner only gets a blank stare. But in even when he lacks complete lucidity, Honig still has the capacity to grapple with his deteriorating state. “I know there’s a past and I know that I lived it,” he said, leaving much else up for discussion.
Swiftly establishing Honig’s condition, “First Cousin Once Removed” is instantly tragic, but from there it moves into a fascinating analytical state. As he peppers Honig with questions about his past, Berliner relies on black-and-white archival images and title cards typed onto the screen, devices present in his earlier work but used with greater urgency here: As Honig recounts the ups and downs of his life, the imagery speeds across the screen in rapid-fire montages that render the elusive fragments of the poet’s life in vivid terms.
It helps that Honig’s saga holds interest even beyond the context of his disease. Having played an accidental role in the death of his younger brother in their youth, Honig faced a grim world early on. The inner demons continue to develop when his 23 years of marriage culminate with his wife’s untimely death. A disastrous second marriage ends in divorce and Honig’s estrangement from his two adopted children, whose memories about their father’s rough parenting skills add details that Honig can’t bring himself. Contrasting these dark ingredients with the brilliance of Honig’s prose, Berliner constructs a profoundly complicated portrait that makes his cousin’s fading cognizance into a particularly dispiriting calamity.
Probing the ruins of a dying brain, Berliner’s mission is fundamentally archeological, but he deepens the nature of his investigation by taking cues from Honig’s written work. “First Cousin Once Removed” benefits from the clarity provided by Honig’s published poetry, which surfaces in voiceover narration and words on the screen, rendering the undulations of his life in sweeping abstractions.
Just as Berliner’s father overtook “Nobody’s Business” with his wisecracking responses to the filmmaker’s questions, Honig eventually subsumes the perspective of “First Cousin Once Removed,” and Berliner allows his elder’s crumbling subjectivity to dominate. A final credit chillingly tests the audience’s own mental capacity, broadening the movie’s perspective so that nobody can escape its clutches without contemplating the cold fate that awaits us all. It’s the biggest idea Berliner has engaged to date — and for the same reason, it’s also his crowning achievement.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A sleeper hit on the festival circuit, “First Cousin Once Removed” airs tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO. With repeat broadcasts, it should garner decent ratings due to strong reviews and a compelling subject matter.
A version of this review ran during last year’s New York Film Festival.