Gabriel is an exercise in method-acting skulduggery, where Rory Culkin, who plays the mentally unstable titular character, is given a showcase to flex his performative might, which is comparable to Christian Bale in American Psycho and The Machinist. Nevertheless, writer-director Lou Howe ultimately makes little use of his protagonist’s troubles, either via circumstantial insight or formal ingenuity. The problem is less Howe as a director than as a screenwriter; scenarios and characters are introduced at a steady clip, but none of them resonate beyond their most immediate, perfunctory roles.
The film begins in medias res, with Gabriel looking for Alice (Emily Meade), an ex-girlfriend with whom he hasn’t spoken in years. He seems to scare people away wherever he goes, as in an early attempt to befriend a young child on a bus that ends with the child’s mother questioning his intentions. When popping into Alice’s old place, he bumps into her ex-roommate, Sarah (Louisa Krause), and pretends to be Alice’s cousin, shortly before his cover is blown. He prefers to be called “Gabe,” as he tells his mother, Meredith (Deirdre O’Connell), making even the title of the film an affront to a character for whom meaningful human connection remains wholly confounding.
Although it may seem like a minor detail, the film’s title is an essential directive in navigating Howe’s aesthetic aims, not least because it gives the proceedings an unearned bibilical inclination, in addition to further skewering an already troubled dude. Gabe is built for suffering; Howe writes scenes to demonstrate the character’s bipolar tendencies and manic-depressive disposition, like how a pleasant family dinner turns on a dime when Gabe pretends to slit his own throat with a carving knife. These are rote dramatic ploys, especially because the supplementary dialogue amounts to little more than playful banter passing for witty repartee. Gabe fixates on minor details, repeating the phrase “cheese from Belize” as a kind of soothing mantra, but, predictably, it crumbles in a diner scene where the sounds of a ceiling fan send him running from the restaurant.
Gabriel is bound by a fundamental mishandling of its own terms, as Howe neglects to lend the film a legitimate reason for being, one which should emanate from a place of sociological inquiry that doesn’t simply instantiate white, middle-class male psychological dysfunction as a beacon of cinematic interest. A film like Nightcrawler successfully navigates such issues by placing its sociopathic loner into a much larger, sprawling tapestry, where his every move has ramifications that extend beyond pathological naval gazing. Howe’s film, on the other hand, is merely an extension of its protagonist, seeking less to understand the character through an empathetic structure than obsess over and fetishize his condition with a narrative that nary leaves Gabe’s side or state of mind.
In essence, Gabriel wants to reveal the anguish of mental illness and infiltrate the mind of its protagonist through constant affirmation of his pain. Unfortunately for Howe, none of his insights possess nuance, especially once it’s made clear that Gabe’s troubles have been sparked by his father’s suicide, rendering his distraught state a reducible facet of post-traumatic stress. Yet Howe finally hinges these pursuits to a final few scenes in which Gabe has become less a character to be understood than feared, as his volatility and hair-trigger temper have him in a situation taken straight from Badlands. The difference, beyond Terrence Malick’s far more elusive take on psychopathic mythos, is that Badlands uses such a scene as a starting point for explorative critique rather an end game of exploitative bad faith.