The story of four dysfunctional families living in close proximity
within the same suburban neighborhood, "The Safety of Object" takes
a topic that isn't particularly new (think "American Beauty") and
the unforced form of a Robert Altman picture (think "Short Cuts")
to seamlessly interweave its complicated characters and their even
more complicated lives into a wholly original and vibrant tapestry.
The result is genuinely hypnotic, a passionate and deeply poignant
motion picture that, no matter where you live, may remind you of your
own past behaviors and actions. For me, an innocent, late-night game
of Marco Polo in a swimming pool between three children was like peering
through a kaleidoscope at my own childhood.
For director Rose Troche, who has had varying success in the past
with her two previous pictures, 1994's "Go Fish" and 1999's "Bedrooms
and Hallways," "The Safety of Objects" marks a major growth for her
as a filmmaker. In beautifully adapting and conjoining a handful of
short stories from author A.M. Homes' same-titled novel, Troche has
gotten to the heart of the American Dream, or the eventual lack thereof,
creating a sharply focused microcosm of familial life and the joys
and hardships that go along with it.
For the Gold's, life has been at a congested standstill for the last
year, ever since teenage son Paul (Joshua Jackson) was involved in
a near-fatal car accident. Now in a permanent coma, grieving mother
Esther (Glenn Close) spends her days with Paul as he lies motionless
in his bedroom, reading books and talking to him as if nothing has
happened. In the process, Esther has unknowingly alienated her husband
Howard (Robert Klein), while leaving her teenage daughter Julie (Jessica
Campbell) questioning why her mother never showed as much affection toward her.
Next door at the Jennings', divorced mother Annette (Patricia Clarkson)
is trying to connect to her two daughters, the androgynous Sam (Kristen
Stewart) and autistic Rayanne (Haylee Wanstall), while being painfully
reminded every night of the love affair she once had with Paul (from
her bedroom window, she can see him lying in his bed in a sleep that
he will never wake up from).
Down the street, lawyer Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney) is betrayed at
work and quits his job, keeping it a secret from wife Susan (Moira
Kelly). At a crossroads in his life, Jim yearns to participate in
something that will give his life meaning. Meanwhile, preteen son
Jake (Alex House) has begun an unhealthy relationship with his younger
sister's Barbie doll.
Finally, at the Christianson's, unhappy mother Helen (Mary Kay Place)
has begun to stress about aging, while contemplating cheating on her
husband, Wayne (C. David Johnson). One of her potential suitors is
hunky neighborhood gardener Randy (Timothy Olyphant), whose little
brother was killed in the accident that left Paul a human vegetable.
The visually stunning and symbolically sound opening credits, in which
the four families are wheeled out of their houses one at a time in
the form of wooden sculptures, only to be forced into a prison that
the film's title creates in front of the homes. The introduction scenes,
alive in a way few screen moments ever are, cleverly finds connections
between the four families and then edits them together to show how
physically close and psychologically distant they are to one another.
It's a stunning five minutes any way you look at it.
"The Safety of Objects" is a startlingly assured and multilayered
drama, unforgettably acted and written, with small moments that are
just as meaningful as the bigger ones. The center of the story--Paul
accident and subsequent coma--affects each of the four families in
one way or another, whether they realize it or not. The sequences
with Paul are, in many ways, its most heartbreaking, the way he is
wheeled to the dinner table to sit with the rest of his family, or
the way Esther still knocks on his bedroom door before entering, as
if he has a say in the matter concerning whether she can come in or
not. At another point, Julie and her two friends come in Paul's bedroom
to check on him. Both of them used to have a crush on Paul, and when
one of them touches his face, she comments, "He's warm," as if she
cannot process that someone in Paul's condition could still technically be alive.
The other central event of the story is Esther's decision to enter
a "Hands on a Hardbody" contest at the mall, in which the contestant
who can stand around the truck touching it the longest wins it. Under
a guilt trip from Julie, Esther wants to win the truck and give it
to her daughter in a misguided attempt to make up for her parental
neglect and undeniable favoritism. The now-out-of-work Jim is suddenly
reinvigorated when he catches wind of Esther's valiant attempt, and
decides that if he helps her to win it might be his savior. The contest
brings hidden wounds to the surface for Esther and Julie, while Tim
experiences a life-changing catharsis that comes right out of left
field and stabs him squarely in the gut.
The entire ensemble cast is superlative, each one creating a distinct
and three-dimensional individual out of sometimes sparse screen time.
Giving the kind of emotionally naked and courageous performance that
makes you wonder why she doesn't get more feature film work, Glenn
Close (1999's "Cookie's Fortune") is stupendously effective as the
conflicted Esther Gold. Jessica Campbell (1999's "Election") matches
Close in terms of focus and complexity as daughter Julie, who wonders
why Esther always seemed to prefer Paul over her.
Patricia Clarkson (2002's "Far From Heaven") turns in another remarkable
turn as Annette Jennings, who shares a common bond with Esther in
Paul, but never got the chance to know her enough to connect to her.
In turn, Esther has no idea what Annette meant to Paul before his
accident. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with special
note going to Mary Kay Place (2002's "Sweet Home Alabama") and Dermot
Mulroney (2002's "About Schmidt") as parents Helen Christianson and
Jim Train; Timothy Olyphant, touching as confused family gardener
Randy; and Kristen Stewart (2002's "Panic Room"), Joshua Jackson (2000's
"The Skulls"), Alex House, and Charlotte Arnold as children Sam Jennings,
Paul Gold, Jake Train, and Sally Christianson.
As the crucial final scenes unfold while a tricky moral decision is
contemplated, the film becomes a veritable tearjerker, yet remains
honest and believable, successfully earning every one of its heartrending
moments. "The Safety of Objects," a thought-provoking title that comes
from the notion that objects--unlike living creatures--do not have
the capabilities to hurt us, is the first truly great motion picture
of 2003. It is rare that a movie is released as honest, perceptive,
enthralling, and emotionally rewarding as this one is. Seek it out.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman