John Magary’s “The Mend,” a portrait of a dysfunctional fraternal relationship, debuted at SXSW March of last year, but is only now in limited theatrical release, and it has garnered some of the most palpable enthusiasm from critics this year. “The Mend” is a difficult film to summarize, and many caution against knowing anything about the film beforehand, but it’s safe to say that it’s about the relationship between two brothers, Alan the Professional (Stephen Plunkett) and Mat the Drifter (Josh Lucas), when the latter decides to move in with the former after breaking up with his girlfriend. Beyond that, it’s important to stay in the dark about “The Mend.” An impressive film debut that, in the minds of some critics, recalls John Cassavetes and French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, “The Mend” enchants with its formal beauty and incisive portrayal of the everyday dark side of humanity. It’s one of the best American films of the year.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Sean Burns, Spliced Personality
Writer-director John Magary’s “The Mend” is the most swaggeringly confident debut feature I have seen since I can’t even remember when. The movie is thrilling from a formalist standpoint. Every shot contains a purpose and every cut has a reason. You know from the dazzling opening sequence that you are in great hands. The film conjures a sinister mojo, like a bad dream from which you cannot shake yourself awake – except the nightmare also happens to be hilarious. Beats repeat themselves and punchlines double-back, circling around the drain to a foreordained conclusion where everything is rot and yet somehow still redeemable. Read more.
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
Forgive me for offering so much plot detail for what is, on some level, a plotless movie. And all of this, of course, could have made for a fairly simple, tired, odd couple story. Watch the two very different brothers try to navigate the complexities of human relationships and wounded masculinity! Marvel as each learns something from the other! Coo as they all hug it out at the end! Instead, Magary lets the textures and tempos of his film turn into a struggle between these two men’s distinct energies — the fragmented, galloping imbalance of Mat’s world, with the orderly diffidence of Alan’s. It lets them collide, to create a unique, infectious rhythm all its own — propulsive one moment, obsessive and clinical the next, like someone had the bright idea of cross-breeding Mike Leigh’s “Naked” with David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers.” Read more.
David Ehrlich, Time Out New York
It’s hard to describe the unique staccato energy of “The Mend” — the film is cut so elliptically that it feels like it’s always breathing in — but the experience of watching it is like having somebody else’s nervous breakdown. By ruthlessly editing out any semblance of setup, Magary ensures that you’re always in the moment but slightly off-balance. Prickly violin strings stab at every scene, their percolating madness disguising a rather sweet and cunningly funny story of brothers learning how to be honest with each other and themselves. Josh Lucas is a feral revelation in the lead role, and Stephen Plunkett is his perfect foil, but it’s Lucy Owen who gets the best and most telling lines: “You lie more as you get older,” she says, “and then at some point, you start lying less because you realize there’s not much point.” “The Mend” finds the truths that bind families together, but it knows that everyone has to hack their own path to get there. Read more.
Matt Prigge, Metro
“The Mend” is Magary’s feature debut, but though you can see the influences — it’s “Husbands” as crafted by French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin (“Kings and Queen”), with sprinkles of “Little Murders” and its portrait of a hostile (if not violent) NYC — they’re mixed in a way that creates something fresh and new and thrilling. Joe Swanberg explores superficially similar territory with his new “Digging for Fire,” but the actory improv feels gratuitous and sloppy and the insights pat and simplistic. “The Mend,” by contrast, is exacting, even as it takes a serious wallow in enjoyably bad behavior. The party is a “Laugh-In” skit of exacting one-liners plus a soundtrack of euphonious deep cuts. (Directors showing off their arcane playlists can be bothersome, but there’s no complaining when the mix boasts Brazilian jazz-funk, Christian prog rock and opera.) Magary’s shots are precise and thought-out — spaces explored with creeping zooms and a fair amount of old-timey iris shots. Read more.
Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club
The Desplechin influence has its pluses and minuses. Magary throws in some iris effects that don’t serve much purpose, and one scene, in which Alan visits an elderly friend of the family (Austin Pendleton) at the request of his mom, seems too directly indebted to the monkey-behind-the-radiator bit (don’t ask) in the French filmmaker’s “My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument.” On the flip side, “The Mend’s” secondhand whirligig approach provides terrific nervous energy, and its prominent use of a string-based score — atypical for this kind of indie production — lends the film a weight that makes it seem quasi-European. One of the knocks on Desplechin’s movies is that they’re too all over the place to cohere, and this one, likewise, is more memorable for its individual parts than it is for their sum. When Mat and Alan steal the walkie-talkie of a movie set’s P.A. and use it to taunt the crew, however, or when Andrea’s son says goodbye to the brothers and is crestfallen to receive a casually indifferent reply, the absence of a big picture doesn’t feel that important. Plus, Magary’s got time (hopefully) to develop a stronger sense of purpose. In the meantime, he’s made something delectably derivative, which is what up-and-comers are supposed to do. Read more.
Richard Brody, The New Yorker
Broken love joins with broken glass as festering resentments and romantic wrangles yield yawps of pain and desire. Magary’s ambition overwhelms his insight; he dourly delights in the mess that the characters make of their lives but lends them little fantasy or psychological resonance. Despite the willful worldliness of the high-stakes emotional games, the movie’s downbeat street poetry devolves into moody clichés. Read more.