Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson match up well together in Meadowland, an evocative portrait of grief. As Sarah and Phil, they offer two distinct impressions of self-destruction, following the disappearance of their characters’ child at a gas station. Wilde shifts her spacey, cool-cucumber persona into a startling zone of detached vacancy, while Wilson invests his traditionally deliberate, likeably drawling line deliveries with a chilling texture of bitterness that recalls his brother Owen’s best performances.
Both actors resist the histrionics that often crop up in stories of grief, as they both understand the greatest pain of loss to be rooted in its searing inexpressibility. Director Reed Morano is right there with her stars, sharing their discipline, copacetic with their restraint, steering the narrative away from most of its potentials for platitude or pop uplift, looking to find that emotional tempo that exists between ruin and functional resignation.
Meadowland occasionally resembles the similarly themed Rabbit Hole. It doesn’t match the James Cameron Mitchell film’s high notes, but it isn’t really trying to—content, instead, to hit weirder, more intimate beats. There’s a crushing moment wherein Phil, who’s attending a weekly group meeting for aggrieved parents, describes the way his son used to laugh, emanating a powerful adult sound from a small body, and how it would always make him laugh in turn. That’s the sort of ultra-specific detail that haunts us in the aftermath of someone’s death, and we keep expecting Phil, with his nearly poetic repetition of the word “laugh,” to cry. We want him to cry.
Wilson and Morano put us in a situation where we need that release almost as badly as Phil does. Morano frames Wilson in a close-up as the latter performs his most powerful scene in a film since the actor’s Richie Tenenbaum attempted suicide in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, and we yearn for a catharsis to let us out of the tension that arises. But we can’t have it because Sarah and Phil will never get it.
There are two scenes with Sarah that are as heartbreaking as Phil’s remembrance. The day that Sarah and Phil’s boy disappeared, he was eating cookies in the backseat of the family’s car, dropping crumbs everywhere, as children do. One night, before her routine, spectral walk into the city, Sarah remembers the cookies, and scours the car seat for crumbs, finding one, caressing it, and eating it. This is a spectacularly peculiar expression of grief, and it’s emotionally unmooring for that very strangeness.
Later in the film, Sarah and her bedraggled, clearly miserable brother-in-law, Tim (Giovanni Ribisi), are smoking something on the roof of the former’s apartment, their heads framed against the sky so that it appears as if they’ve almost come to briefly inhabit a land in the clouds. It’s a sweet, fleeting release from misery—a communion between two people who have never understood one another, who are now siblings in their estrangement from the optimistic possibilities of life. They are briefly residing, in their sadness and drug-fueled haze, in a cruel mockery of heaven.
Meadowland is a collection of moments that coalesce into one another before evaporating, cumulatively yielding a tapestry of confusion and regret. A DP making her directing debut (she also shot this film), Morano fashions brown, blueish, earthy images that occasionally evoke the work of cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Queen of Earth, Heaven Knows What), and that similarly embody a notion of ironically beautiful fugue states. Morano has an eye, and more importantly a feeling, for the intangibly devastating.