Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Missing Point

'night Mother (1986)
Directed by Tom Moore
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Sissy Spacek
Grade: C -

Nine years after Anne Bancroft could still get away with wearing a cocktail dress in Herbert Ross's The Turning Point she was into pernickety old woman territory in 'night Mother, a film adapted by Marsha Norman from her own Pullitzer Prize-winning play. Sissy Spacek completes the casting coup as Thelma's (Bancroft's) daughter Jessie, who casually informs her mother before their evening cocoa that she intends to shoot herself in the head before the night is out.

Norman wrings out the blackly comic mundanity of Jessie's approach to suicide (and existence in general) for a good half-hour before things get that heavy. Her meticulous preparation -- bags of clothes labelled with who she wants to donate them to, instructions on which pills her mother should take and when, a decade's worth of birthday presents -- detailed to generate irksome discomfort in Thelma and cynicism in the audience. Is death really as clinical a matter? 'night Mother doesn't come to any real conclusions about death (perhaps with the exception of the not-so-groundbreaking observation that it's inevitable) and is content to parade a checklist of issues that lack much depth or interest. In an attempt by her mother to assuage her daughter's morbid stance Jessie's mariage and son are discussed, but don't anchor our understanding of her and are hastily presented as outlets for empathy. If a woman's sole reason to stay alive is on the off-chance that she might get back with her ex-husband, I'd be tempted to load the gun myself.

Bancroft and Spacek go through the rigmarole of shifting their exchange from room-to-room in what are some very well-constructed scenes. Jessie manages to get through a day's worth of errands while soaking up her mother's flummoxed remonstrations and pleas, and it prevents the film's emotional turbulence from feeling as laboured as it might have. Anne Bancroft represents but a sliver of the film's faults but her often misguided histrionics do little to disguise 'night Mother's heavy reliance upon conservational quips and periodically shifting topics. Spacek fares better, her eyes at their hollowest best, generating poignancy against the odds and seeming completely synchronised with the dominant idea of Jessie as a fallen woman, graceful in defeat.

When watching 'Night Mother one is surely reminded of Ingmar Bergman's powerful Autumn Sonata, a film that creates such a rich historical overview of a troubled mother-daughter relationship through the same conversation-heavy style. Norman's script has theories but lacks real density and is disappointingly unequivocal in its discussion of mortality.

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