3 Backyards B
By Patrick Z. McGavin
Sundance Film Fest 2010 (Dramatic Competition)–Winner of the Jury directing prize, Eric Mendelsohn’s curiously restrained and withholding “3 Backyards” is almost certainly the most enigmatic of the festival’s competition titles. Mendelsohn’s reach occasionally exceeds his grasp, but that also appears his very point of trying to claim or hold onto the ineffable.
This is just the talented director’s second feature and a belated follow up to his mournful, poetic reverie “Judy Berlin” (1999). Like that film, “3 Backyards” is another work of inquiry and becalming quiet unfolding in the eerie, radioactive strangeness of New York’s Long Island. The dominant visual influence of “Judy Berlin” was Michelangelo Antonioni’s great early 1960s trilogy, especially “L’eclisse,” that also included “L’avventura” and “La Notte.”
The literary precedent here seems most likely the works of John Cheever. The movie similarly deals with the emotional turbulence and despair afflicting those growing up in a placid suburban paradise. The new film, a trilogy in miniature, is also concerned with the mystery and unaccountable that Antonioni trafficked in. The movie binds three stories and is centered on people living in a quiet, tree lined neighborhood.
The movie opens, at dawn, at the home of John (Elias Koteas), a man preparing to leave for a business trip whose marriage is clearly broken. The distance separating his wife (Kathryn Erbe) is telling, and the two are unable to find any meaningful words or ability to address whatever is bothering them.
After his flight is cancelled, he is paralyzed by action and caught in an in-between world that finds him unable to confront his wife directly. He engages his wife in a peculiar phone call, unbeknownst to her conducted while he is standing outside their house, in his yard, where he can see her. Further frustrated by their growing communication gap, he abandons that strategy and takes up sanctuary at an airport hotel. At the hotel, he grows increasingly drawn to the story of a beautiful African émigré (Danai Gurira) who is trying to find work.
In the second chapter, or story, Christina (Rachel Resheff), a beautiful and adventurous young girl, steals a piece of her mother’s jewelry. The act of defiance causes her to miss her school bus and forces her to negotiate the neighborhood backyards and forests to get to school where she encounters a strange man whom she spies as he is pleasuring himself and she notices he has stockpiled a series of dog collars and collected them to a wall at his shed. Christina’s also finds the man’s latest catch, a missing dog and sets the animal free. Having finally reached school, she finds herself unable to concentrate on her classroom assignments and wonders about the mysterious man and his private lair.
In the third story, Peggy (Edie Falco) a housewife and aspiring artist, makes a strategic ploy to befriend a well-known actress (Embeth Davidtz) who is temporarily living in the neighborhood. She jumps at the chance to drive her to the ferry landing. Believing (falsely) that the actress’ dependence on her elevates her own social standing and importance among her group of friends, Peggy discovers painfully how her act of kindness is misinterpreted and the actress’ extreme reticence and refusal to open that effectively turns the trip into a private hell.
On a certain fundamental level, “3 Backyards” is an anti-story. Mendelsohn’s talent is for visual storytelling. He links the three episodes through governing visual patterns of light and shapes and physical movements. The movie’s dominant metaphor is flight, and how each individual is somehow caught or trapped by circumstance.
In each case, Mendelsohn withholds crucial information and refuses to delve into particulars. John’s flailing marriage is perhaps a result of the financial stress of an imploding business, the strange man at the center of Christina’s story remains indecipherable and the frozen, stony silence or unwillingness of the actress to respond to Peggy’s entreaties for a give and take conversation.
The movie succeeds roughly two-thirds, most beautifully and elliptically in the first and third segments. These movements achieve the strange, unknowable tone Mendelsohn working so hard to capture. John’s passive reluctance to engage the outside world is seen in his too late response to the émigré woman’s hour of need. Likewise, what gives the third chapter a snap and vigor is the enforced physical proximity between the two women, neither given an easy escape. (This chapter may also work as Mendelsohn’s extended homage to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” with Davidtz playing the Liv Ullmann role of an actress who has lost her ability to speak.)
The middle section is less effective in part because the emotional terrain it is working requires tact and greater depth of characterization and meaning. Because it hovers around a very difficult subject, the connection between a young girl’s wonder of the world and an older man’s sexual hang ups, the narrative withholding is a little too creepy and underdeveloped to work, either emotionally or psychologically. By contrast, the other chapters work because the failing of the characters has immediate and lasting consequences that resonate.
“3 Backyards” probably requires a second or third viewing to adequately understand and penetrate the movie’s sublime surface. It is not always successful, and the frustration with story and character is palpable at times. It looks great (Kaspar Tuxen’s imagery is fantastically alive and generous with light and color) and the acting, across the board is strong and convincing. Hopefully, Mendelsohn will not wait so long to make his next film.
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