JAMES WHITE (2015, Josh Mond)
Christopher Abbott (you’ll remember him as Charlie on “Girls,” though he popped up last year as a waste-oid in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR) plays the title character, and he’s on screen virtually the entire running time — when not sharing the frame with Cynthia Nixon, he’s just sitting there in close-up, thinking and/or suffering. It’s a difficult performance, but it’s a great one. He plays isolation and grief beautifully, and for all his efforts he isn’t even the best actor in the movie. But I’ll get to Nixon in a second.
James White’s bland name is no accident: this is a film about “a person,” despite all the details we get. James’s life is specific to that of a young, white, urban New Yorker, son of upper-middle class parents, whose father abandoned them for a new family. But no matter what conditions under which his humanity exists, this film is about his humanity — and how everyone, regardless of social position or place in the world, must face life’s one unavoidable, impending result: death. Even when everybody else is there, nobody is there. You suffer alone, nobody really cares, and life must go on. Millions of people are bouncing around aimlessly, trying to find connections, filling bored nights with booze, sex, or partying, trying to earn wages to give them food, shelter, and the cover charge at a club, and either getting in the way of or out of the way of other people. But the acute, agonizing pain of seeing a loved one wither away and die is real and universal. And it belongs to you.
Mond understands this and processes it visually with the aforementioned close-ups, also choosing to refuse any added editorial sentiment a score provides. The only music is diegetic. Time leaps forward with abrupt cuts, while some scenes are stretched out in painful real time. But the most impressive thematic achievement of this film is how it never once judges James. He makes mistakes, he makes bad choices, he says some funny things, he shows empathy… in short, he’s a person. But when everyone else in the film can and often does judge him, the camera does not. It’s content to watch him exist, and that is so valuable in generating the searing level of emotion this movie provides.
Then there’s Nixon, whom I hadn’t ever really seen before in a substantial role. I knew of her from SEX AND THE CITY but haven’t seen the show or movies, so I had no frame of reference. But Jesus Christ this woman can act. In not a lot of time, she forms a complete, relatable character and then goes through the awful, torturous details on screen involved in wasting away from cancer. Mond and Nixon fearlessly show us that death is not the graceful exit often shown in movies where a character says something profound then closes their eyes in peace. It is a terrifying march filled with humiliation, deterioration, and helplessness. Nobody wants to go, but we have no choice. Michael Haneke faced it with his magnificent AMOUR, and not only is James White the best film about love and death since that 2012 masterwork; it may be one of the best films about anything since then.