Grief, despondency, remorse, regrets and more regrets: It’s not exactly the holiday escape to the movies most people are looking for, but hey, it can’t all be giant apes and magical lions.
In fact, better perhaps not to think about writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s melancholy Nine Lives as film. It’s barely cinematic at all'at least not in ways you’ll see much of at the multiplex at the moment. It’s more like theater, in fact, this collection of nine short, interconnected one-act plays. Watching each mini-movie'they all unfold in real time in long, uncut single takes'is an urgent and immediate experience akin to letting oneself be swept away by powerful actors trodding a tiny bare stage. A cinematographer whose forays into directing have been mostly on television'particularly on intimate interpersonal dramas including HBO’s Carnivàle and Six Feet Under'Garcia eschews the tricks of film. He sets his extraordinary cast free in front of the camera as he might have on a stage, and lets them lead him around (or so it seems). Garcia lets their emotion and passion reign, lets them seduce us with feeling rather than attempting to seduce us himself with visual chicanery.
If there’s a trick to Nine Lives, it may be in its total lack of artifice. Garcia achieves a tender sympathy coupled with the slightly scandalous sense that we’re eavesdropping by making us forget we’re watching a film, forget we aren’t actually there accidentally overhearing these dramas of pain and guilt. That’s the case in perhaps the best of the one-acts, in which Robin Wright Penn’s Diana meets an old lover, Damian (Jason Isaacs), in the supermarket. They replay their whole relationship'from tentative, tender greetings to comfortable companionship to bitter recriminations'while they push their carts around and catch up with each other as they shop. Garcia’s camera becomes invisible as it follows Diana and Damian into the produce section and up the soap aisle, and his script refuses to fill in any details merely for the benefit of the audience. So many tantalizing hints of their past go unexplored, hanging heavy in the air'perhaps because they’re sore points for the erstwhile couple, or merely because they have no need to discuss things they both already know too well. There’s great power here in everything that is not said.
And then, there’s this to distinguish Nine Lives from most of your options at the multiplex: It is about women in a way that truly understands women, appreciates the sacrifices and compromises that women willingly make out of the need to balance love with self-determination, security with sovereignty. We don’t need to know why Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo) is in the county lockup to recognize the slice of autonomy she gives up for her young daughter, whose monthly visit goes awry. We don’t need to be totally filled in on the simmering row between longtime lovers Sonia (Holly Hunter) and Martin (Stephen Dillane) to appreciate how she must always come out on the losing side of it no matter what she does. We don’t need to understand all that has passed between Lorna (Amy Brenneman) and Andrew (William Fichtner) to see how she will be the one to suffer after the almost horrifically illicit tryst at a funeral that he initiates.
Nine women whose lives touch one another’s somehow navigate these nine tales, and like anything assembled from smaller wholes, some of the individual pieces work better than others. True, a few of the tales feel a bit too languid and character-sketchy to deeply please. But that’s more than made up for by the beautiful performances'the cast also features Glenn Close, Kathy Baker, Sissy Spacek, Dakota Fanning, Molly Parker, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Joe Mantegna, Aidan Quinn and Deadwood’s Ian McShane'and Garcia’s captivating approach.
NINE LIVESHHHRobin Wright PennHolly HunterAmy BrennemanNot Rated