At what point does a filmmaker decide he’s going to kill a good story in exchange for poignancy? Presumably it’s the writing stage (otherwise there would be lots of production overages). Don’t get the wrong idea; downer endings are by no means a bad thing. Blanket statement alert: In the movies they’re often more faithful to the conceit laid out in the story’s first frames.
But there are times when the sad ending seems designed to be sad for the sake of being sad. Think about awful-even-without-the-endings movies Message in a Bottle and, yes, My Girl. Does Kevin Costner need to drown? Does the Home Alone kid need to be stung to death? And what do those endings achieve? That the other, living, characters learn something?
This isn’t a rumination on decades-old films that are best forgotten. It’s just that Still Life is an otherwise nifty, if deliberate, meditation on the human need for contact, and its ending, while perfectly sensible (and predictable) feels like a cheat.
While it may seem bitchy to talk up the appropriateness of the sad ending and then impugn Still Life’s use of it, perhaps we should place the blame for such ambivalence with writer and director Uberto Pasolini. If he hadn’t cast Eddie Marsan as government worker John May, we could shrug our shoulders and go about our day.
Marsan won’t allow that to happen. The delightful character actor, who has the kind of face you could look at for hours, is often a bright moment in otherwise tedious productions. For example, Guy Ritchie’s crap Sherlock Holmes films spring to life whenever Inspector Lestrade shows up. Marsan’s brief screen time in Michael Mann’s big-screen version of Miami Vice? Gold.
Marsan does the same with May, an English government worker whose job is to track down family of unclaimed dead. (In this context, to borrow from Nora Ephron, the “unclaimed dead” is the dead you don’t notice until the smell drifts into the hall.) When May can’t find family, he organizes a funeral or cremation. Like his clients, he’s alone, and it seems as if he’s rehearsing his own burial.
That is, until he comes across Billy Stokes, a drunk who was dead in his flat for 40 days before anyone found him. Through some sleuthing, May finds that Stokes had several ex-girlfriends and at least two adult daughters he never knew. One of the daughters, Kelly (Joanne Froggatt, charming), takes a quiet liking to John as he bends over backward to find Stokes’ remaining family (there’s a subplot that explains all extra effort).
And if it seems as if John is finally going to have some people in his life, you’re half right. There’s an unfortunate dip into the supernatural as Still Life comes to a close, and its taste is so bad it ruins everything that came before it. Fortunately, Marsan’s wonderfully pensive face makes up for much of the ending’s silliness. This is one case when the sad ending should have been kicked in the ass.
There is another alternative; you could skip the movie entirely and listen to The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” It has the same plot and goes by in 2:07.
Directed by Uberto Pasolini
With Marsan and Froggatt
Santa Fe Reporter