I’m going against the critical tide on Gus Van Sant’s Restless—though at least I’ve got Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times) and A.O. Scott (New York Times) for traveling companions in defense of the film. I can’t get away from the feeling that a lot of the negativity surrounding the movie is of the knee-jerk variety that stems from a surface similarity to Hal Ashby’s classic Harold and Maude (1971). Yes, Restless is about two people who meet at funerals, and, yes, this leads to an odd romance, but that’s where the connection ends. Plus, there’s not a 60-year age difference between the two (a key subversive aspect of the earlier film) and the reasons this pair goes to funerals are quite different. And so is the movie.
The film concerns a young man, Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper—Dennis’ son), with very little of a life and whose only friend is Hiroshi Takahasi (Ryo Kase, Tokyo!), the (imaginary?) ghost of a kamikaze pilot, with whom he plays Battleship and throws rocks at freight trains. His parents were killed in a car crash and he’s being taken care of by an aunt he insists on calling Mabel (Jane Adams, The Brave One)—and keeps at arm’s length. His only outlet appears to be attending the funerals of strangers—the reason for which is implicitly offered in the course of the film. It’s at one of these that he first meets Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska)—who it turns out attends funerals for reasons of her own—but he wants nothing to do with her until she comes to his rescue at a later funeral where the funeral director (Christopher D. Harder) is about to bust him for funeral crashing. There follows an odd relationship—one that is colored both by Enoch’s past and by Annabel’s limited future, since she has a brain tumor and a projected three months to live.
This could have been awfully gooey material. It certainly has all the earmarks of a bad romantic novel. In fact, it can in some ways be read as a variation on Love Story—set 40 years later. It also could have descended into being one of Van Sant’s more impenetrable—so-called “difficult”—films like Paranoid Park (2007) with its interminable fascination in finding imaginary depths in shallow youth. Fortunately, Restless—thanks in large part to the three leads—manages to fall into neither trap. In the realm of Van Sant’s odd filmography, I’d put it somewhere between Milk (2008) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) in terms of accesibility—though it may fall a bit short of those in terms of success.
What we have here is a sweet, sad little movie that may have its roots in other films, but is finally its own. It’s a rare work in that it manages to romanticize death and de-romaticize it at the same time. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that pulled this off so well, nor one that so manages to be about death and dying without becoming dreary or mawkish. It moves you without undue manipulation or cheap pathos—and it’s often moving in ways you don’t expect. The construct of Hiroshi could have been a senseless affectation, but the character (who gets the film’s sharpest lines) prevents that—operating as friend, conscience, advisor and as a friend who is jealous of and threatened by the prospect of this new romance. He also represents a basic conflict within Enoch’s mind—proof of a life after this one, something that Enoch would otherwise have his own reasons for not believing.
This was obviously (just look at the original poster) originally intended to get a wide Columbia Pictures release, but later relegated to the art-house treatment through Sony Pictures Classics. That was probably wise. This is a very specialized film that was never destined to be a huge hit, and it would have been lost in wide release. But it is also a very special film that deserves a chance with discerning viewers. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality.