Saturday, September 10, 2005


One of the films I watched while sick, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," I hadn't seen in full for quite some time. I'd forgotten what a quiet little masterpiece of human longing and suffering it is. Lasse Hallström's vision of rural Iowa life (from Peter Hedges's novel and screenplay) is both heartbreaking and emotionally liberating, poetically captured by cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The performers are all wonderful, and "Grape" is a true ensemble piece. Despite the big names and familiar faces, you instantly sink into the characters' reality, and once there, you feel the tremendous weight most of them endure.

I won't explore the entire plot -- if you haven't seen "Grape," then I suggest you do. But the main nerve deals with suffocation. Johnny Depp's Gilbert keeps a blank stare on his face in order to suppress the fear, anger, frustration and sense of hopelessness that boil just beneath. Gilbert is the Grapes' acting patriarch, his father having hanged himself in family's basement many years before. Whenever there's trouble to be handled or money to be earned, it's Gilbert's responsibility. He must look after his two sisters, his mother who, in reaction to her husband's suicide, became an obese shut-in, and his retarded younger brother, Arnie, who's about to turn 18.

Arnie was Leonardo DiCaprio's big screen breakthrough, for which he earned an Oscar bid (but didn't win, surprise, surprise). Playing a character with severe mental problems or emotional limitations has pushed many an actor into caricature overdrive, physical exaggeration and wild gesticulation being the usual mainstays (see Brad Pitt in "12 Monkeys"). Not so with DiCaprio: his Arnie is naturally realized, a frail, extremely sensitive boy whose body is growing into manhood while his thoughts and emotions are forever trapped in a child's mind. It's a marvelous performance, alternately sweet and gut wrenching, and makes you wonder why DiCaprio remains so underrated.

However limited Arnie is, he moves much more freely than do most of the other characters, each of whom is chained to some kind of emotional weight, or in Mama Grape's case, psychological and physical despair. For them, every day is nearly identical in that they must find ways to function without breaking down or flipping out. (John C. Reilly's handyman Tucker seems the exception, a cornered optimist who can find meaning in the smallest places.) Breathing space is limited. It appears that only death can air things out, when not providing escape for those who've breathed long enough.

Gilbert finds his escape in Becky, a young woman who's traveling with her grandmother and forced by truck problems to camp near Gilbert's small town. This is perhaps Juliette Lewis's best performance; Becky's self-confident sweetness is casually revealed. After meeting Gilbert, she's in no hurry to leave, and adapts quickly to the slow pace of her temporary surroundings. While waiting for the spare truck part that will force her to go, Becky begins pulling Gilbert out of his hardened shell and shows him another way to look at life. For all the torment and anxiety Becky senses within him, she clearly sees his need and ability to love. Helping Gilbert to see this himself brings her closer to him.

This is the grace note, a glimpse of possible redemption in a larger, muted tragedy. It seems that in our larger, not-so-muted tragedy, glimpses of possible redemption are becoming much harder to find. The fictional inhabitants of Endora, Iowa aren't the only people who are suffocating.