Film critic, programmer, and documentarian Kent Jones has a taste for the hallucinatory and ecstatic. With this in mind, Jones’s first narrative feature, Diane, seems unexpectedly ordinary at first—scanning as a studiously humble study of an elderly woman in a small town in Massachusetts. But appearances are deceiving, as Jones misleads his audience in a fashion that parallels how we mislead ourselves, believing our lives to be an endless succession of the present tense. Jones’s Americana is revealed to sit atop a cosmic abyss powered by regret, soothing monotony, and a steady march toward death.
Diane is governed by recurring variations of a car navigating stretches of road filmed from the point of view of the driver. Jones emphasizes cinema as an art of both passive and active consumption, as we are “passengers” of a vehicle devised by filmmakers, though films also have an allusiveness that requires us to come to them via contemplation. On more direct terms, Jones’s emphasis on driving embodies a sense of pressing on stolidly, regardless of any given day’s disappointments, in acts of devotion that might almost literally be Sisyphean in nature. (The car is frequently seen driving up hills.)
Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a woman who knows many disappointments, as her cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), is dying of cervical cancer while Diane’s son, Brian (Jake Lacy), succumbs to drug addiction. Diane visits Donna and Brian often, weathering their respective miseries while working at a soup kitchen. Providing brief respite are Diane’s friends and family, who’re played by a formidable collection of veteran character actors of the screen and stage.
Jones is steadfastly devoted to the intricacies of Diane’s routine, evading the miserablism that’s almost inherent in stories of the stifled middle class. The filmmaker understands that misery can be comfortable for the miserable—a means of self-definition as gratifying as any other. We rarely see Diane doing anything for herself, as she maintains her grueling alternation between visiting Donna and Brian and going to work at the soup kitchen. Conditioned or perhaps brainwashed by pop films, we wait for an inciting incident to bail Diane out of her predicament. Jones revisits variations of these scenes so often as to gradually direct the audience’s attention toward the specifics and eccentricities of this world. The actors inform Jones’s parred, often funny dialogue with poetic cadences, hitting certain words with theatrical punctuations that offer tiny, barely perceptible catharses.
“God damn,” spoken so that each syllable lands with resounding impact, is a favorite phrase among Diane’s family, particularly as they gather in a loved one’s kitchen. Before we enter this sanctuary, Jones provides a brief glimpse of it through a window of the house from the chilly exterior, likening this place to a refuge of warmth and bonhomie. Diane’s aunts and uncles, including Ina (Phyllis Somerville) and Donna’s mother (Estelle Parsons), trade stories while sipping coffee and liquor as supper simmers on the stove. These lively, thorny people seem to collectively embody several centuries’ worth of experience. This impression of ancientness is probably the greatest comfort in Diane’s life, as it projects a stability that Jones understands to be an illusion in a fleeting world. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Diane gets drunk on margaritas and is kindly asked to leave a bar. Outside, in the pitiless New England winter, she wails while trying to support herself on a pole demarcating a parking space. In this moment, Diane could almost be King Lear, raging at the skies. Then, as if by magic, several of her family members appear to take her home, offering support rather than judgment.
Even without the more portentous portions of the film’s dialogue, Jones allows us to implicitly understand that Diane is atoning for something, willfully denying herself pleasure for reasons that go beyond her feelings of responsibility for Donna and Brian. The dignity of Diane’s suffering has inescapable religious undertones, suggesting films such as Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Paul Schrader’s Affliction. Audaciously, Jones acclimates us to Diane’s routine to a point where we enjoy it, anticipating each fearful stand-off with Brian and each subtextually freighted visit with Donna, as well as each bad buffet with Diane’s friend, Bobbie (Andrea Martin).
Every moment is so textured and precisely rendered that it becomes fantastical, from the games of bridge to the chicken in borrowed pots to the heartbreaking sounds of Bob Dylan on a jukebox—an ecstasy that’s underscored by the rigorously tight framing of the images, which heightens one’s sensitivity to alternations in the characters’ routines. Diane’s self-imposed martyrdom imparts a sense of virtuousness upon us for watching such an uncompromising film, though said martyrdom isn’t sentimentalized. (In a majestic performance, Place shows the toll that each ritual takes on Diane, such as when she has to insist to people that Brian is doing fine.)
Jones conditions us to expect that Diane will follow its protagonist to her death, with little overt plot to speak off, in a quiet refutation of the three-act contrivances of most cinema. He doesn’t quite stick to these guns, eventually explaining the nature of Diane’s guilt, which is revealed to pivot on an indiscretion that poignantly fails to justify her self-loathing. This revelation is a minor disappointment, a sop to the sort of films that Jones has artfully transcended, but it leads to a moment of profundity. Brian turns up at Diane’s house late at night, drunk, in a brief break from his new role as smug churchgoer. Again, Jones conjures suppressed emotional impulses, suggesting that Diane misses Brian the addict for gratifying her savior complex.
Brian grants an unexpected mercy, attempting to relieve Diane of her incrimination, uttering a kind of benediction: “I’m trying to say that I taught myself to disapprove of you.” The line is so naked, so rapturously evocative, and so resonant to virtually everyone—both inside and outside of the screen—that one might wonder if Diane is dreaming of a moment that conveniently springs her from an emotional prison. In an ending that bridges the everyday of this world with its potentials for the cosmic, Jones suggests that such distinctions of fantasy and reality hardly matter. Feelings are reality, engulfing humans as they complete their brief acquaintanceship with the terrestrial.