Review: ‘Restless’ is Confoundingly Bad

By  · Published on September 18th, 2011

I’ve no better, more eloquent way to put this – Gus Van Sant’s Restless is awful, pandering, painfully acted, lazily written, up its own ass schlock.

It’s bad.

This is not the Van Sant that pulled beautiful, nuanced performances from his actors in Good Will Hunting, gave us solid, dark, indie-fare like Elephant, or even the almost total airball remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This, perhaps, is a sign that Van Sant has taken his title as arthouse darling and run it completely off the rails.

I make it a habit of keeping my reviews spoiler free, but in that I really don’t want anyone encouraging Van Sant to commit a similar cinematic crime by showing up at theaters to buy tickets, this review requires a few. It’s difficult to get across the gravity of suck that Restless presents without benefit of spoiling some of the ludicrous plot. So, be warned – movie details ahead.

Restless is the story of Enoch Brae, played by relative newcomer Henry Hopper, a morose, brooding teen with a morbid fixation on death after the recent loss of both of parents in a car accident. Enoch manifests said fixation by attending funerals and wakes of random recently-deceased in his town. During one particular extra-curricular mortuary visit, he’s noticed by the saccharin-sweet Annabel Cotton, played by a wholly wasted Mia Wasikowska. After what is initially an unfriendly interaction, Annabel wins the petulant Enoch over by saving him from a wary funeral director. On top of being so painfully kind that she’s willing to look past Enoch’s obnoxious behavior, he finds she’s also a terminal cancer patient dying of a brain tumor – and thus a budding, paper-thin relationship begins.

The script, based on a play written by Jason Lew, is a mess of vanishing characters with implied importance to the story, loose threads, dead-ends, convoluted motivations – and an imaginary Kamikaze fighter pilot best pal…that’s actually not imaginary.

What is straight-forward about Restless ends up being cliche and boring. Enoch is attracted to Annabel’s tolerance of him, and further her allowing him into the world of her fast-approaching death. He will eventually grow to genuinely care for Annabel, and then love her – and she him, which in turn helps him find closure in his own personal tragedy. There are many dozens of ways to make this journey engaging, beautiful, and meaningful for audiences. Instead, we get a lead in Hopper who is out of his acting depth against Wasikowska, who seems to have been told not to act, but rather – just be unfailingly adorable in her delivery.

The dialogue is unnatural; language and tone that you’d not expect of teens, or people that aren’t living in a re-run of The Gilmore Girls or Dawson’s Creek. Wasikowska and Hopper preen and pose as they converse, never delivering a believable or touching moment. The writing is so bafflingly terrible, in fact – that in one particular scene our two leads deliver a goofy series of lines I would have had no reason to differentiate from what was to be taken seriously had they not referenced them as syrupy dialogue the kids had written themselves.

Mia is cute – always, unwaveringly. Even when she’s upset, she’s adorably so. There is no nuance to Annabel; she’s simply fearless, quirky, and happy to be in the moment. Van Sant glosses over the very real fear and struggle cancer patients navigate when treatment is no longer an option. Until it’s absolutely necessary to remember that Annabel is dying of a brutally awful illness, you’d almost forget if not for, “Oh s#@t, time to mention the cancer thing,” moments scattered throughout.

The supporting cast doesn’t do much to elevate Restless; in fact, Van Sant and Lew seem to forget they have a supporting cast at all for the vast majority of the movie. Jane Adams (Hung, The Wackness) plays Enoch’s aunt and guardian, Mabel. Her interactions with Enoch imply a struggle for authority, a desire to break through his shell, and an exasperation at her inability to get a handle on either – but she’s barely in the film; a weak plot device to move the story along. Even worse, she’s a source of exposition when it comes time to give the audience the big, “what the hell is wrong with Enoch,” moment toward the end of the film.

The same can be said for Annabel’s sister Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk) and mother Rachel (Luisa Strus). Rachel buries her sorrow in the bottle, which is understandable. What’s not, is that she is in the film for a total of five minutes, book-ending the movie but otherwise being completely absent, even in the many scenes in her own home. There is nothing wrong with Fisk’s portrayal of the older sister coping with taking on the parent role while struggling with Annabel’s nearing demise – but Van Sant really doesn’t do enough with her. Again, she shows up randomly, and to little effect. She’s perplexed by Enoch, but again – they don’t explore much. She gets over that he’s a socially awkward high school drop-out fixated on death…that’s hanging around with her soon the be dead sister, with inexplicable ease. She’s mostly there to cry.

Add to this a weirdly out-of-place bully chase, a melodramatic sledgehammer tantrum, and references to events that seem like they were tacked on after having forgotten to mention them when they would have mattered – and well, it’s just awkward writing and filmmaking.

The only truly pleasant nugget in the film is Ry? Kase (Letters from Iwo Jima, Survive Style 5+) as Hiroshi, the before-mentioned imaginary World War II Kamikaze pilot (but not) buddy of Enoch who tries to provide balance to his sullen, vitriolic friend’s life. He doesn’t say much, I’m still not entirely sure what purpose he serves in the film, but when he’s on screen, Kase provides substance and quiet charisma to a barren acting landscape. I’d like to see him in more films Stateside.

Restless hits none of the emotional notes it aims for; it flails clumsily at the subject of love and mortality, being all too content to boringly roll through set-up, confrontation, and resolution in as generic and predictable a way as possible. Van Sant’s knack for finding and showcasing quality unknown talent falls short in his casting Henry Hopper – as he’s simply not ready for the emotional beats he is expected to nail. In the end, it’s just a weird stinkin’ movie, and Van Sant needs to avoid doing this again. Please.

On the Upside: Ry? Kase acts. That was nice of him; I appreciated that. Also, I laughed a few times, though not when I was supposed to.

On the Downside: Gus Van Sant made me not care a whit for a movie about coming of age, falling in love, and suffering the loss of a loved one via a terrible, terrible disease. That’s difficult to do, but he pulls it off with abysmal dialogue and again, horrible acting. Finally, Restless was the film equivalent of a walking Burberry catalogue. I now hate pea coats and scarves.

On the Side: Ry? Kase was in Survive Style 5+. See that film instead of this. It makes very little sense, much like Restless, but it’s actually kinda doing so on purpose, and it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying.

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