It’s perhaps too easy to say that you’ll feel nothing for writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson’s latest film, Anesthesia, but unfortunate titling doesn’t make it any less true. Some third act manipulation aside, the movie seems content driving its point home while being a prime example of the very thing it’s targeting.
Trouble starts almost immediately as Nelson knee-caps his film’s emotional power by opening in medias res with Prof. Walter Barrow (Sam Waterston) dying in a stranger’s arms after what appears to have been a brutal mugging. We then jump back several days to explore the lives of the professor, his friends and family, and the strangers nearby.
Barrow teaches philosophical literature to malleable young minds at a well-respected university, and he is as beloved as any teacher to have ever graced the halls of higher learning. He’s days away from retirement – never a good omen in a cop film, an even worse one here – and while everyone is sad to see him go he does so knowing he’s changed, nurtured, and helped others along the way. He’s happy, content, and free you see, but the same can’t be said of anyone around him.
His son (Nelson) and daughter-in-law (Jessica Hecht) are in the fearful haze of a cancer scare, and their two teenage children are dulling out the world with recreational drugs. A fellow literature lover (K. Todd Freeman) blots out the world with heroin while his best friend (Michael K. Williams) blindly and dispassionately takes on the role of savior. A man (Corey Stoll) cheats on his wife (Gretchen Mol) and kids with another woman in the same city while claiming to be on a business trip halfway around the world. One of Barrow’s students (Kristen Stewart) burns herself with a curling iron so she can feel something, anything, other than the dull droning on of a society built on selfishness, cruelty, and insularity.
Sophie (Stewart), is only the most literal human representative of the film’s overwhelming theme of defensive despair in the face of modern life, but just about every character aims for the same target whether or not they recognize and acknowledge that despair. They ease their pains with alcohol, drugs, or distractions of the flesh, and the one constant among them is that their primary motivation is their own self-interest. Barrow stands apart as the one who schools others from his lofty perch on the wisdom of the past and demonstrates it daily through his confident smile and acts of kindness.
His extreme, much like Sophie’s brilliant but troubled grad student at the other end of the spectrum, is just as one-note in character. Along with everyone else in between these characters exist to point out where most Americans are going wrong, but it’s unclear if Barrow is meant to be the ideal – we know from the very beginning that he’s going to be punished for his “sin” of living life correctly, so what’s the takeaway?
There are sparks of life here along with good, small performances by Stewart and Waterston, but the ensemble structure – one exemplified by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (and stabbed with a fork by Paul Haggis’ Crash) – leaves little for viewers to latch onto. Nelson gives us nothing but sad people, some aware and others blissfully ignorant, while offering nothing tangible in the way of medicine or meaning. There’s nothing wrong with purely observational dramas or straightforward character pieces, but the drama we’re given here is stale and lifeless, and the characters even more so.
Anesthesia ultimately feels devoid not just of feeling but of purpose too.
Related Topics: Kristen Stewart