Evan Rachel Wood
Roderick P. Woodruff
These days, if truth be told, ‘American Independent Cinema’ is less an umbrella term for a film’s source of funding than a designation of genre, advertising a largely pre-determined set of characters, themes and situations that are no less conventionalised, for all their ‘eccentricity’ and ‘grittiness’, than those attached to any other film genre.
A spot of suburban adultery, some teen rites of passage, a funeral and/or a wedding, a few reflections on the generation gap, and a dysfunctional family forced to face itself and grow up a little when a crisis brings all of its inner tensions home to roost – these may be the ingredients that make up The Upside of Anger, but they are also familiar from The Ice Storm, American Beauty, Pieces of April, Imaginary Heroes, Garden State, Thumbsucker, The Squid and the Whale, A Guide to Recognising Your Saints, and Little Miss Sunshine, to name but a few examples. Still, of all these, only Mike Binder’s film manages to include a sequence in which a character’s head is seen to explode with an explicitness bloody enough to match anything from David Cronenberg’s Scanners.
Anger, you see, is an emotion so universal that it is able to transcend the typical bounds of the indie. Anger is the first word of Homer’s war-soaked Iliad. Anger is what turns mild-mannered Bruce Banner into the rampaging Hulk. And anger, post-9/11, is (or at least has been) the emotion du jour for ordinary folk all over America, making their blood boil and their knees jerk with the righteous, indignant, combustible wrath that has fuelled the US’s clumsy ‘War on Terror’. Danny Boyle explored this emotion in all its destructive horror in 28 Days Later… (2002), Peter Segal tried to exorcise it with comedy in his New York-set Anger Management (2003) – and now, a good time after the Twin Towers collapsed, Binder uses his domestic indie frame to show that, as much as anger can be harboured for years, can be poisonous to both the self and others, and can be terribly misplaced, it can also, at least eventually, have an upside.
One day, housewife Terry Ann Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) discovers that her long-term husband Grey has up and left without so much as a word. “The fact is he’s run off with his Swedish secretary”, Terry explains to her four daughters, Hadley (Alicia Witt), Emily (Keri Russell), Andy (Erika Christensen), and ‘Popeye’ (Evan Rachel Wood, who also narrates). Terry turns to day-time television and the bottle for solace, while her daughters each struggle to cope in their own way – but then, over the course of the next three years, one-time baseball pro turned radio DJ Denny Davies (Kevin Costner) comes to fill in the vacuum of confusion, grief, guilt and deepest, darkest anger left in Grey’s wake.
The Upside of Anger begins in fact near its end, with Terry, Denny and ‘Popeye’ attending a rain-swept funeral service, but before the identity of the deceased can be revealed, the film flashes back to three years earlier, so that the film is shot through with an unexpected element of suspense. Will the future corpse be a child from the neighbourhood, run down by a drunk and reckless Terry (“just get over yourself!” she shouts to the concerned parent down whose leafy street she keeps careering)? Or might it be Emily – after all, that stomach-ache of which she constantly complains seems a little suspicious? Or maybe Gordon (Dane Christensen), Lavender’s schoolfriend with the penchant for dope and bunjee jumping? Or ‘Shep’ (gamely played by Binder himself), Denny’s middle-aged radio producer whose predatory sexual relationship with Andy is pushing Terry to whole new levels of rage? Or might it even be Grey himself, returned at last to face the most murderously aggressive of receptions?
None of this quite makes The Upside of Anger a thriller, but it does ensure that the film is always more than a mere by-numbers domestic drama – and it is desperately, darkly funny too, with dialogue to, er, die for, and a perfect cast. Instead of going over the top, the ever-excellent Allen plays Terry’s anger with a sophisticated sort of restraint that ends up making her seem all the more explosive, while Kevin Costner, an old pro at playing old baseball pros (Bull Durham, For Love of the Game), here recovers from the past crimes of Waterworld and The Postman with a rle that exploits both his natural laidback charm and his advancing years. Together they present that rare thing in American cinema – a mature relationship that revolves around more than just sexual attraction.
The Upside of Anger is also, of course, about the passing of the seasons and the gradual healing of wounds, as an arrested, disrupted family changes over time and learns to “get over” itself. As such, it is very much an allegory for our own times, as the US tries to lay its anger to rest once and for all, to make peace with its past, and to move on to the next chapter of history. Not bad for an unassuming indie which manages to live up to all the expectations of its genre, and yet be so much more.