There’s a haunting theme of isolation in the film “Anesthesia,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. The title refers to the ways we numb ourselves in order to withstand life. Characters intertwine a la “Babel” or “Crash,” until the satisfying end that reveals interlocking connections.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” my Dad always said, and main character Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston) poignantly illustrates that. We first see the wise, content philosophy professor Zarrow in the opening scene strolling home on New York City’s Upper West Side. He stops in at a bodega to buy flowers for his wife Marcia (Glenn Close), which we learn he’s been doing throughout his happy marriage.
On this night, though, Walter is brutally assaulted. It’s a wallop of a beginning to the movie that then jumps back a week, where the story begins. Tim Blake Nelson, best known for his double decades as a character actor, wrote, directed, produced and stars as Zarrow’s son Adam. Playing his wife, Jessica Hecht swallows up the meek Adam with her imperious personality but, although I immediately disliked the woman, Nelson forces us to feel empathy toward her when Adam confides in his dad that she’s been diagnosed with cancer.
Meanwhile, Adam’s son (Ben Konigsberg) struggles with sexual frustration and self-soothes with pot and masturbation, while his mopey teen-angsty sister (Hannah Marks) dabbles with drugs. Speaking of drugs, Michael K. Williams plays a corporate lawyer in high-end suits whose heart is breaking. For year’s he’s been trying to get his childhood friend (K. Todd Freeman) off heroin. Freeman gives a tour de force.
Kristen Stewart delivers shock and awe with her brilliant magnum opus — a riveting monologue opposite her professor (Waterston). She plays a troubled grad student who is self-destructing by burning herself repeatedly with a curling iron in a twisted attempt to cope with overwhelming rage and disappointment at the sad state of the world. Her professor, Walter, provides a compassionate ear and wisely advises therapy.
Gretchen Mol plays a lonely privileged mom living in an upscale suburban home using bottles of wine as her anesthesia. We watch her going out of her mind with carpools and chores and a husband (Corey Stoll) who says he’s working in China but she knows he isn’t.
Weeks after the film, I find myself missing the rich characters. Nelson gave me a voyeuristic view into their nightmares, and I was glad to see life presented in its honest, chaotic state. I have a pet peeve about the saying: “Things happen for a reason.” To me, it is deluded to think that the random chaos of life has some magical divine order. I am convinced it does not. I like movies that raise existential thoughts like “Anesthesia” does. As Nelson told Indiewire, he prefers films that ask questions rather than provide answers.
“Like an abstract painting. You look at one section of it … I’m not so interested in a cohesive narrative freighted with a specific message. I’m more interested in a coherent whole, that opens up more than it closes. That asks more than it answers. — Tim Blake Nelson, Indiewire
Kudos to Nelson for writing realistically about tribulations — and not feeling compelled to tie it up in a neat bow at the end.
The “Anesthesia” cast also includes Gloria Reuben, Mickey Sumner, David Aaron Baker, Philip Ettinger and bombshell newcomer Jacqueline Baum.
Drama. 90 min.
Watch the “Anesthesia” cast on stage at Tribeca Film Festival:
Watch a clip from the movie:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.