What a delicate and remarkable debut this is from young American writer-director James Mangold.
Here is a film that takes its sweet time, unafraid to dwell within the unspectacular incidents and feelings of everyday life. Like Fargo (1995), it is a movie that creeps up slowly on the viewer, making its deepest impression long after the final credits have rolled.
There is just enough of a touch of Carson McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Cafe to add a poignant touch of agonised expressionism to this tale of the everyday.
Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is an obese, emotionally withdrawn chef, surrounded by a typical bunch of mundane wrecks including his mother Dolly (Shelley Winters) and waiter Delores (Deborah Harry). When the adorable teenager Callie (Liv Tyler) lands unexpectedly in this diner, Victor becomes intensely infatuated with her.
This film will strike some viewers as very European in its narrative manner. It is a film of pauses, of in-between moments, a gentle and patient observation of characters on their daily rounds. What drama there is has occurred in the past – such as Delores' affair with Dolly's late husband – or is deliberately muted. The child of artists, Mangold has a clear and abiding respect for minimalism as both a pictorial and a storytelling strategy.
There is really only one major plot event in the present tense unfolding of Heavy, and so it would be churlish of me to give it away. Mangold has a problem keeping the consequences of this event plausible, but he manages to hold the proceedings together nonetheless. Our focus, at any rate, is not on plot but character; and on this level, the film never falters.
One of the most admirable aspects of Heavy is the refusal to exploit its inherent beauty-and-the-beast theme in any easy, manipulative fashion. Mangold does not shirk from showing the actual physical realities of human appearance and age. But, mercifully, he does not make a cruel, tearing spectacle of these realities, as so many previous films have done. Victor is not a drooling monster, and Callie is far from being some ice princess.
Mangold's compassionate approach to his characters recalls the famous credo of the master filmmaker Jean Renoir: that "everyone has their reasons" for whatever they must do, and that they bumble along making whatever small, moral progress they can in a world of compromise and disappointment. The indirect, fleeting glimpses we receive of Callie's own story – which involves a pregnancy and the effect this has on the relationship with her boyfriend – are especially plaintive in this regard.
There are moments early on – such as the repeated, ominous shots of Victor and his ever-boggling eyes – when Heavy threatens to be become Gothic and overwrought, like a David Lynch film. But Mangold keeps his story close to the ground-tone of ordinary aspirations, misconnections and joys. The film never overplays its optimistic, redemptive hand: for these characters, happiness is the ritual of sitting in a parked car, watching a plane fly overhead.
It is also a beautifully stylised piece. The images are still and restrained without ever becoming ponderously academic (a rare feat). The soundtrack is a triumph of ambient mood; emotional turning points are underlined not by the usual clumsy surge of music, but by a range of carefully manipulated natural sounds generated in and around the diner.
After this film, Mangold has made a much bigger project, Cop Land (1997), with Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, followed by the dreary, formulaic, Oscar-slanted Girl, Interrupted (1999). This gives rise to mixed feelings: the decline in artistic achievement within the studio system is all too common; and yet the thought that such a quiet, minimal, understated work as Heavy can function as a calling card to a feature career in America today is nonetheless gratifying and surprising – because a hopeful reminder of the brief, good old days of the '70s when uncompromising, singular directors such as Monte Hellman or Terrence Malick could actually get to make a few films.
MORE Mangold: Walk the Line
© Adrian Martin June 1996