Todd Solondz movies can be hard to sit through. Up to now, I’ve always watched them from a bit of a remove, braced for whatever might come next, so I was surprised when his latest swept me clean off my feet. I would say Life During Wartime is his best work yet—but maybe I’ve changed more than he has.
I say that because this movie made me revisit Happiness, his first film about the spectacularly dysfunctional family of Life During Wartime, and the second viewing was a revelation. The first time around, watching Happiness was like watching a good horror movie: The suspense was almost unbearable at times as I waited to see who would do what to whom. Will Billy’s pedophile father rape his own son? Will Allen, the obscene caller, kill the neighbor he’s obsessed with—or be killed by the other neighbor who’s obsessed with him? Will poor joyless Joy’s viciously passive-aggressive family drive her to suicide? Enormously compelling and repellent at the same time, this was no audience-flattering suburban dystopia, but it went too far in the other direction for me. Almost all of Solondz’s characters were doing their best to lead good and fulfilling lives, but they fell so stunningly short of the mark, and hurt other people so badly along the way, that I just couldn’t relate to them. I felt the director looking at all his characters with love, seeing their humanity and forgiving them their sins, and I admired his Christlike compassion, but I just couldn’t share it. I mean, some things are unforgiveable, aren’t they?
That’s one of the questions that gets kicked around a lot in Life During Wartime, which may have helped me surrender to it. If Happiness is mostly about the terrible things people do to one another, Life During Wartime is mostly about the consequences of those actions. As painful as it was to see Billy ask Bill about his sickness in Happiness just after learning that his father is a child molestor, it’s even more wrenching to watch their tormented reunion years later in Life During Wartime. After years of silence, the love between the two is still palpably there, but the trust is irrevocably broken, and Billy’s life is so clearly warped.
There are some new twists in Life During Wartime, like the just surreal enough dream and fantasy sequences that help us see what’s inside people’s heads, or the talismanic objects cinematographer Edward Lachman lingers on at times, including an enormous moon that hangs just above the Florida horizon in one of Joy’s dreams. But overwhelmingly, the things that made me succumb to Life During Wartime were the same things that made Happiness work for me the second time around. It’s the operatic music and emotions; the camera’s way of lingering on people when they’re not doing much, giving us time to really see what they’re feeling; the smart dialogue and searing humor. It’s all those scenes in restaurants, where people work so hard to rein in or outright deny their immense sadness to keep up public appearances. It’s the lies they tell even themselves (“I’m not a scab; I’m a strikebreaker,” Joy insists after crossing a picket line in Happiness.)
But mostly, its the way Solondz nails some important and generally unspoken truths about life in America right now and the human condition in general. I can’t think of a filmmaker working now who’s better at capturing the soul-crushing cruelty that can masquerade as family love, but his real subject is the emptiness at the core of modern life and the tidy environments, Photoshopped Sears portraits, platitudes and pills we use to paper it over. As Stuart Smalley liked to say, denial is not just a river in Egypt. In Todd Solondz movies, it’s a tsunami that threatens to swamp any genuine emotion. In that environment, anyone brave enough to face the truth about himself deserves our respect, even if the truth is that he’s a child molester.
So why did I resist Happiness before and find it so moving last night? Maybe it helped to know just how far people were going to go, so I didn’t have to brace myself against some unforeseen horror. And maybe I’m just getting less judgmental as I get older. I think I’m just starting to believe something Bill says in Life During Wartime, which Solondz seems to have felt from the start: “People can’t help it if they’re monsters.”
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.