Rodrigo Garcia's "Nine Lives"one of the most interesting and original American films out right nowbegins in a jail and ends in a graveyard. In between, it takes us on an anxious tour of tortured psyches and splintering relationships in contemporary Los Angeles.
The result is reminiscent of Garcia's multi-stranded 2000 "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her." But it's more powerful, a disturbingly frank look at people and relationships in contemporary Los Angeles and a thrilling dramatic showcase for a brilliant cast.
Arranged in nine successive parts, each segment shot in a single unbroken moving camera take, "Lives" is a movie that often becomes vividly, painfully real. One by one, Garcia shows us a gallery of women in crisis: a cheating, guilt-ridden wife (Sissy Spacek) on a tryst with a drunken, clowning widower (Aidan Quinn); a distracted woman facing breast cancer surgery (Kathy Baker) with her quietly supportive husband (Joe Mantegna); a bereaved widow (Glenn Close) having a picnic in a cemetery with her strange little girl (Dakota Fanning); and an abused daughter (Lisa Gay Hamilton) dissolving in gun-waving hysteria as she waits for her abusive dad.
We also see a divorced woman (Amy Brenneman) coping with her disturbed ex-husband's (William Fichtner) ravenous desire for her at his second wife's funeral; a patient teenage daughter (Amanda Seyfried) torn between warring, non-communicating parents (Spacek again and Ian McShane); a feuding couple (Holly Hunter and Stephen Dillane) having an emotional meltdown in front of their friends (Jason Isaacs and Molly Parker); a jailed woman (Elpidia Carrillo) trying desperately to speak to her daughter; and two old lovers (Robin Wright Penn and Jason Isaacs) having a memorable unplanned meeting in the aisles of the local supermarket.
Those stories might seem the stuff of soap opera, but Garcia and his superb cast turn most of them into dramatic gold. The peculiar overall structure makes them distinctive as well, the way these little semi-Chekhovian, semi-Andre Dubus pieces play out against each other.
"Nine Lives," in fact, is reminiscent of Robert Altman's great 1993 L.A. ensemble drama, "Short Cuts" (based on Raymond Carver stories), but where Altman interwove his separate tales together, Garcia presents them as discrete units. The scenes sometimes criss-cross, and a few times, characters from one episode pop up in another. Hamilton's near-suicidal Holly appears later in the Kathy Baker episode as the cancer patient's calm, perfectly controlled nurse. Isaacs' Damian is both the insistent ex-lover of the supermarket scene and witness to the embarrassing tantrums of Sonia and Martin (Hunter and Dillane).
In neither case is the sudden shift explained. It just happens, reminding us that however consumingly important one life may appear at any moment, something just as crucial may be happening nearby.
"Lives" benefits from that rigid artistic scheme; the nine unbroken Steadicam shots, suggesting a cinema verite documentary, help give the movie an irresistible sense of freedom and possibility. The remarkable all-star cast makes the episodes actors' showcases as well. Each scene hones in on an uneasy, potentially explosive or emotionally perilous situation, and the actors swiftly, skillfully peel it bare.
For many years an L.A. resident, Garcia is the son of the widely admired Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The plenitude of character in his films recalls the father's narrative richness, but the son's style is leaner, more spare. Though it's an ensemble piece, Garcia's film is really about isolation, about the ways people can't communicate with each other. From the very first scene, when the jailed mother waits for her daughter, to the last, which is about communion with the dead, all the stories hinge on failures of communication, little tragedies of lost love.
Directed and written by Rodrigo Garcia; photographed by Xavier Perez Grobet; edited by Andrea Folprecht; production designed by Courtney Jackson; music by Edward Shearmur; produced by Julie Lynn. A Magnolia Pictures release of a Mockingbird Pictures production in association with Z Films; opens Friday. Running time: 1:54. MPAA rating: R (for language, sexual content and some violence).
Camille - Kathy Baker
Lorna - Amy Brenneman
Sandra - Elpidia Carrillo
Maggie - Glenn Close
Holly - Lisa Gay Hamilton
Sonia - Holly Hunter
Samantha - Amanda Seyfried
Ruth - Sissy Spacek
Diana - Robin Wright Penn
Damian - Jason Isaacs
Lisa - Molly Parker
Maria - Dakota FanningCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times