THE MEND * * * *
Starring Josh Lucas, Stephen Plunkett, Lucy Owen, Mickey Sumner and Austin Pendelton. Written and directed by John Magary.
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.
This is not to say that The Mend is in any way predictable, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Largely plotless, it follows two brothers, sort of. Alan (Stephen Plunkett) is an uptight, desperately uncomfortable hipster nebbish about to propose to his similarly stuffy girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) when all of the sudden, in the middle of a party one night, Alan’s estranged, layabout brother Mat (Josh Lucas) pretty much just metastasizes without warning on their living room couch.
Mat’s arrival is heralded by helicopters that thrum through the surrealistic sound design. (This is another one of those lone-apartment, kitchen-sink Brooklynite relationship dramas, except it’s shot like Apocalypse Now.) He’s chaos incarnate, mostly by just not giving a fuck. In his tattered T-Shirt, beat-up motorcycle jacket and pathological indifference to the feelings of anyone around him, Mat is an unchecked id, oblivious to social contracts and catnip to the ladies all the same. Lucas plays him with such bedraggled, magnetic savoir-faire I started calling him “Ruin Gosling” in my notes.
The film’s bravura opening sequence is an almost thirty-minute house party during which Alan’s beloved catches him quoting a James Wolcott review of her dance company’s latest production and passing it off as his own. It’s as good as movies get these days, deliberately eliding exposition in favor of the present tense with a roving camera creeping up on the actors, the film changing speeds to explicate the character dynamics with all the dexterity of early Scorsese. Meanwhile Mat keeps spreading himself out on the couch, like a cancer.
In the morning, Alan and Farrah are off to Nova Scotia to become betrothed. Mat, having hooked up with a dancer “who hates her body” in the guest room, simply sticks around. He eventually invites his part-time single-mom fuck-buddy (Lucy Owen) to come crash there, too, even bringing along her kid. (She says she’s got a bedbug infestation at her apartment but the building manager claims it’s Radon. Duly noted that these are two very different things.) Then a couple days later Alan returns, alone, without a word.
It’s a bizarre family unit, the four of them going out for ice cream all the time. Oblique Polanski angles and weird, pizzicato-strings on the soundtrack play up the awkwardness as the supporting characters slowly rattle each other’s comfort zones, then peel away and disappear. Alan got dumped before he even had a chance to propose in Nova Scotia, and he’s not handling it well. “I’m angry and I am sad!” he shouts at nothing in particular, this turns out to be a family trait.
The Mend is a bender and a crawl. It’s also appallingly funny. Without the civilizing influence of the women in their lives, hoo-boy do these guys degenerate to the level of dumb beasts, pissing in the sink and fistfighting in the hallway of an apartment overtaken by empties. There’s something primal and cathartic about it, even before their despised Dad shows up as a hallucination.
Magary is a smart enough filmmaker to use his references wisely. He rips a page out of Mean Streets, signposting the San Gennaro Feast, but then flips the script so it’s the Charlie character and not Johnny Boy walking into that old, familiar bar in slow motion. The reaction shots are totally different, recontextualizing an iconic scene and making it something new for his purposes. (Lucas’ slo-mo mug is hilarious.)
The Mend is really all about its last half hour, though. Covered in caked-shirt-vomit and dry-heaving in a coughing, phlegmatic stupor that is pretty much the most realistic depiction of a hangover ever captured on film, it out-Withnail’s Withnail and I. Guess I can reveal that eventually Alan and Mat finally come to terms with each another and their absent father, to an elliptical, unresolved point when I might have openly started weeping – which is probably a weird thing to say about such a coarse, ugly movie but it hit me terribly below the belt.
This is a great film.