Grieving the sudden death of his wife, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg), Sherwin (David Oyelowo) arrives at the coastal home of his cancer-stricken mother-in-law, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest), for reasons he doesn’t seem to understand. Maybe he’s chasing some vague promise of closure, looking to squash his recent reliance on cigarettes and alcohol, or maybe he’s curious about his wife’s past claims that Lucinda disapproved of Fiona having a black husband.
Five Nights in Maine is full of the unspoken resentments and visual metaphors that propel any solemn drama about grief and mourning, but it’s also awkwardly adorned with the trappings of gothic horror. Lucinda’s white, coastal home suggests an abandoned mansion, from its creaking doors and floorboards to its ever-dripping faucets, and she only greets her visitor during a series of stiff, candlelit meals. Her lordly manner and loud proclamations are as overwrought as the film’s Foley work.
Writer-director Maris Curran never reconciles the film’s impulse to interiority with its weakness for hothouse melodrama. Lucinda and Sherwin’s uncomfortable dinners are bookended by long stretches of tightly framed shots following Sherwin as he washes dishes, explores the local woods, or interacts with Lucinda’s part-time nurse, Ann (Rosie Perez). The film attempts to address his race without speaking its name, so it resorts to a few moments of all-caps subtlety. Sherwin receives long glances from strangers at the grocery store, and he panics after hearing gunshots in the forest. These coded scenes seem intended to buttress Sherwin’s alienation from the film’s rural setting, but that goal has already been handily realized the moment he walks into the house of an imperious and sickly white woman.
The relationship between Sherwin’s race and his grief is inscrutable, in no small part because both of the film’s central characters are difficult to parse. A set of quicksilver flashbacks reveal some of the love and tension in Sherwin’s relationship with Fiona, but the film barely eludes to his life outside of their marriage. Oyelowo easily locates some dignity in a character who’s lost his center, but Wiest can’t humanize a character who never seems to have had one. Their brief relationship remains an uneasy, elusive dirge. Five Nights in Maine illustrates two very different methods of mourning, but it doesn’t offer any sense of how they interact, or why we go on living.