Writer and director Todd Solondz is many things, but up until seeing this film I did not necessarily believe that "master of suspense" was one of those things. And yet, as Life During Wartime began—with a reprise of sorts of the opening scene of Happiness, the 1998 film that the new picture is a kind of sequel to/variation on—I felt a sense of cringing dread that honestly did not let up for the entire film, which runs a very tight 98 minutes. There was some disturbance in the cinematic air that went well beyond the anguish of the characters. And as this is a Solondz film, all the characters are anguished, deeply so, even, no, make that especially, in their most ostensibly euphoric states. The film's opening scene takes place at a restaurant, and Allen (played in Happiness by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and here portrayed by Michael Kenneth Williams, and African-American actor; I mention this difference because it does register sharply in both the dynamic of the scene and of the newly conceived old character) is presenting Joy (Shirley Henderson) with the same engraved ashtray that was given to her by the appalling Andy in Happiness' opening scene. The film is replete with all these interesting corresponding dovetails with the earlier film, including the kinds of actors Solondz here chooses to take the "places" of the actors in the first film; and whole scholaraly studies may well be written about all these links, for in the space of five features, Solondz has managed to create a postmodern "omniverse" of which Quentin Tarantino perhaps could not even conceive. Going into a lot of detail about it here is only going to diverge too much from the point I'm most interested in making at the moment, so I'll put aside that theme for now.
Anyway. Allen is giving this stupid ashtray to Joy, and I keep focusing in the scar that's creasing the character's forehead, and waiting for it to explode, like something out of an early Cronenberg movie. It does not, of course, but that's not because Life During Wartime is a particularly realistic movie; if it were, it would not be able to spin the effect I was so put under. Things do occur in the lives of the characters, the main ones being, of course, three sisters at various but equally unsatisfactory levels of personal achievement/fulfillment: Joy, the talentless hippie-dippie folksinger-songwriter who works with convicts and has now married Allen, the former phone-sex pervert; Trish (Allison Janney), the now-single mom who has allowed her soon-to-be-bar-mitzvahed son Tim (Dylan Riley Snyder) believe that his child-raping father Bill (Cierán Hinds, seen in the above still) is dead; and Helen (Ally Sheedy), the impossibly pretentious and self-centered onetime poet who's now not at all enjoying a successful screenwriting career (and a relationship with someone named "Keanu") in Hollywood. But Solondz's seemingly rudimentary structure—almost the entire film subsists of scenes in which only two characters interact with each other; hence the bar mitzvah scene, which might serve as the climax to almost any other such film, is pretty much dispensed with in an establishing shot, and later further distinguished by young Tim's absence from it—and slyly minimalist mise-en-scene and editing (the shot/reverse shot constructions of all the two-handers have a halting, fearful rhythm, almost as if the very film itself is reluctant to go on) create a sense of constant unease, perpetual nervousness if you will, that also put me in mind of another Feelies concept/lyric: "You must be waiting for things to happen/expecting something to happen/but nothing ever happens." The truly awful thing in Solondz's world is that after all the pain and squalor, life really does go on. And on.
For me this uncanny cinematic dread is a more salient feature of Life During Wartime than its actual content, which, I should say, I don't have any particular problem with. Yes, as with almost all his works, this one does feature extremely frank sex talk coming out of the mouth of an underage character, but I don't see this as Solondz being unduly or meretriciously provocative; childhood anxiety about/comprehension of "adult" issues is one of his main themes, after all, and there's no reason for him to discontinue exploring it just because he's done so before. I also don't think it's anti-semitic, or self-hating-Jew-like, or any such thing, for him to make fun of a character who's not yet even visited Israel expressing a commitment to be buried there. And so on. In fact, I think the writing here is some of the deepest Solondz's done, particularly with respect to the solipsism that all of us are in some ways inescapable heirs of and victims to, and its relation to what goes on in the larger world. "The enemy's within," a sinister character (Charlotte Rampling, superb, as are all the actors) who winds up a peculiar benefactor to the just-released-from-prison Bill observes pointedly in the middle of a sex negotiation; and this truth relates in a disturbingly oblique way with Tim's heartfelt and necessarily callow reflections on the notion of forgiveness as it relates to "terrorists"—who in his cosmology range from pedophiles to, of course, the 9/11 hijackers.
Bear in mind, of course, that I am the critic who, when rhapsodically reviewing Happiness for Premiere, suggested that Solondz could well become New Jersey's answer to Luis Buñuel, a proposition that should have earned any critic a lengthy stretch in Fulsome Prison. Yes, Solondz is, like Buñuel, a satirist and a boundary-pusher, but on the one hand he lacks Buñuel's detachment and at the same time has too much of a different kind of detachment. The detachment he lacks is the sort that gives Buñuel's films, particularly the later ones, their lovely, eccentrically charming wry and dry quality; and the detachment Solondz does possess places him at such a remove that his perspective on his characters can be read as contempt by those who aren't paying close enough attention. I'd say that Ben Gazzara furiously sprinkling salt on his dinner at the end of Happiness is a genuinely Buñuelian moment, while Dylan Baker's Bill's too-often-celebrated final admission to Billy in that film is a pertinent example of Solondz hitting things too squarely on the nose. (Incidentally, at the reception following the film's premiere in New York last night, I was shamefully admitting my print indiscretion to some friends, one of whom pointed out that I did at least make the Buñuel comparison before Solondz shot Palindromes, which features various actors playing the female lead, in a trope that could conceivably be said to have been influenced by Buñuel's final film That Obscure Object Of Desire. One friend suggested that I thus could, in the manner of Armond White's demented fulminations about Noah Baumbach and Greenberg, announce that Solondz had gotten the idea as a result of my review, which might help make me look less silly. I don't know about that.) The bits in Life During Wartime are similarly hit-or-miss, but in a way that doesn't quite matter as much as the shroud of mordantly funny terror that enwraps the film entire. A true black comedy, to be sure.