The conventional wisdom around Noah Baumbach as a cranky misanthrope with a preemptive grudge against his fictional players—one of the hoariest ad-hominem characterizations in circulation—wasn’t yet in full swing when The Squid and the Whale bruised audiences with its lucidity and rawness. Equally hard-hearted and uncompromising in its mode of delivery as its coolly received follow-ups, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, the film executes its mercilessness in dart throws, with each offhand aggression piercing the cork around the bull’s-eye until the board is nearly filled up and a moment of release is granted. The cumulative impact validates Baumbach’s alleged cruelty as a natural, unshakeable route to emotional truth, not a temperament crudely applied to individual scripts. (It’s telling that his latest three efforts, the breeziness of which suggest a filmmaker reading his reviews and calibrating his tone accordingly, don’t hit as hard.)
Holed up in the sunless sectors of Park Slope for far too long, The Squid and the Whale‘s central Brooklynite family—by all accounts a surrogate for Baumbach’s own—is built on frictions: between a husband’s delusions of intellectual superiority and a mother’s more open and accepting demeanor; between a son’s unapologetic embrace of sports and a father’s dismissal of this passion as unserious; between another son’s feigned maturity and a mother’s struggle to delicately expose him as inexperienced; and, most of all, between each character and their own conscience. Neither purely observational nor governed by any consistent subjectivity, The Squid and the Whale is a film that, despite its constrained scale, takes a panoramic view of family dynamics, allowing each character a spotlight to be off-putting while simultaneously partaking in their fleeting impressions and sensations.
Where a melodramatic family drama might establish an image of unity only to gradually crack away at it, Baumbach eschews any such illusions right off the bat. A cutthroat doubles match at an indoor tennis facility opens The Squid and the Whale and brusquely sets the stakes: Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) and her youngest son, Frank (Owen Kline), face off against her eldest son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), and her husband, Bernard (Jeff Daniels). The pairings are shuffled in a subsequent dinner scene that’s every bit as charged with antagonism, with the parents gathered on one side of the table as they surveil their children’s eating habits. When Bernard and Joan settle on a divorce and joint custody, the impulse to take sides magnifies. Walt convinces himself that he shares his father’s holier-than-thou disposition and goes about adopting Bernard’s vernacular and his pretensions (mostly assumptions about literary greatness that skew drearily canonical), while Frank, who doesn’t identify with these rigid stances on life, seeks refuge with his mother.
Baumbach, shooting with regular Wes Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman on muted Super 16mm in cramped, poorly illuminated quarters, captures the unseemly repercussions of these reflexively chosen affinities with an intimacy that verges on discomfort. Glancing images of self-harm and puberty gone awry—Joan peeling dead lip skin in front of a mirror, a trickle of semen down a row of books—punctuate the film, but the queasiness Baumbach cultivates is largely verbal in nature. Bernard’s sermonizing and Joan’s all-too-blunt way with words around tricky subjects have quietly insidious effects on their children, as cursing becomes second nature and undigested thoughts are released in public to confused ears. Baumbach is one of cinema’s sharpest writers of naturalistic dialogue, capable of ringing out layers of meaning from casual exchanges, and here he’s at his pithy best: Bernard’s offhand categorization of his student’s short story to his teenage son as “very feminist but very interesting” belies depths of misogyny and elitism, while his graceless romantic counsel to Walt leads the teen to ditch his perfectly reasonable girlfriend, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), with the same projectiles of secondhand rhetoric that he unveiled to initially charm her.
In such instances, The Squid and the Whale reveals itself as both an astute snapshot of the contagiousness of paternal petulance as well as a methodical takedown of a “father knows best” ethos. The staccato cadence of Tim Streeto’s editing, which clusters together short scenes that excise the beginnings and ends of interactions, often keeps the impact of Bernard’s autocratic parenting from registering fully on impact, but the film’s tragicomic punch lands in the final act after an otherwise useless therapy session triggers in Walt a warm memory of his mother—thus spawning a stint of self-analysis that doubles as an occasion for viewer reflection. Baumbach’s liberal use of era-specific folk music (the story takes place in the 1980s) starts to grate in these climactic scenes of realization, but it’s not enough to dull the film’s stinging inventory of the knockout blows issued in the throes of divorce.
Previous transfers of The Squid and The Whale have looked more incontestably filmic, while the Criterion Collection has done away with a good deal of the celluloid artifacts. The grain is finely honed down, the image looks sharp and clear, and exposure is appropriately subdued, but it’s easy to yearn for some more analog texture. Still, this doesn’t look rubbery or slick like some recent transfers of films shot on celluloid. The sound, meanwhile, is evenly mixed; the burst of Pink Floyd’s studio version of "Hey You" in the third act doesn’t make one reach for the volume knob, and Jeff Daniels’s more under-the-breath deliveries are always discernible.
Among the extras on this disc are a segment that pairs warmly anecdotal interviews with the lead actors with clips from the film, a comprehensive monologue from the director, and an off-the-cuff chat between Baumbach and his composers, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. More insightful are the archival pieces, including original audition tapes (make sure to crank the volume here) showing Jesse Eisenberg running through various scenes with about the same nervous energy he brings to the final role, and a short behind-the-scenes documentary by Noah Baumbach's brother, Nico, that catches the kind of raw director-actor interactions that don't typically make their way into more polished featurettes. The package is rounded out with an essay by critic Kent Jones, who praises The Squid and the Whale with exceptional candor, and a reprint of a long 2005 conversation between Baumbach and novelist Jonathan Lethem that gets very detailed about influences and the specificities of the film's New York setting.
Eleven years and several acclaimed films later, Noah Baumbach’s breakthrough still looks like his sharpest, most personally inflected work.