Rated R for a lot of substance abuse and cruelty. The protagonist is beaten and almost raped. There's language every time the movie gets a chance. It shows the cruelty of homelesses and the misery that accompanies that. It's a pretty bleak showing of alcoholism, bordering on a bit preachy using Leslie as a cautionary tale at times. R.
DIRECTOR: Michael Morris
If I'm not mistaken, this movie has some controversy behind it. I kind of wish that my wife didn't tell me that before I started watching it because I wanted to watch it objectively and see if I really thought it was an Oscar worthy performance. I'll tell you what. While it wasn't a perfect movie and normally I wouldn't consider it Oscar worthy, in the sludge that has come out this year, it's actually pretty good. Sure, it was campaigned for a bit shadily, but that doesn't change that the movie mostly works.
Okay, even I acknowledge that this is well trod-upon ground. Going all the way back to The Lost Weekend, the morality play about the dangers of addiction are something that have been covered before. I'll even say that it has been done better than To Leslie. But if I remove this from an Oscars setting (which I should because I'm now post-Oscars at this point), To Leslie is mostly a character study. It's more of a commentary about our empathy than it is necessarily a morality tale. Don't get me wrong. Leslie is a hot mess. She hits about every beat that an alcoholism movie should. There's the cycle of lies. There's the physical and emotional abuse. There's the lows and then there are the low-lows. It's not really saying that those things don't happen. But if anything, the character of Leslie is a commentary on who we are in these scenarios. The thing is, I don't know if I really see myself in any one of these scenarios. That's okay. Not everything's about me. But I'm sure that, if someone is keeping score with how movies are supposed to work, the characters are supposed to be avatars for me. Maybe I'm just privileged enough to not be in the movie, which is possibly the greatest commentary on me.
Before I go into Sweeney, who should be the focus of this blog, I want to talk about Dutch and Nancy. Dutch and Nancy are a bit of a mislead. James starts off the movie establishing that we don't know Dutch and Nancy the way that we think we do. That's not shocking. When James says this, we don't know who Dutch and Nancy are. But considering that the movie flies pretty hard into formulae that we're pretty used to, the notion of Dutch and Nancy being the sage archetypes is all I can wrap my heads around. After all, we have James, a character that is most put out by Leslie's blatant selfishness and alcoholism, vouching for the morality of these two characters, I expect them to live up to such a swimming recommendation. That never really happens in the movie. The entire time, Dutch and Nancy kind of suck. Now, here's me putting on my analytical hat and trying to view the forest through the trees. (That's gotta be a mixed metaphor, right?) The film promises that Dutch and Nancy are these holy people, but they end up being the antagonists of the film.
Part of that is the knowledge that James views from his limited perspective people who were good to him when he needed someone to be good. We're all supposed to be kind of sympathetic to that plight and get that James may not be the best judge of character. Also, James has the right to think well of Dutch and Nancy. But also, the morality play is also about the transformation of Nancy as much as it is about the transformation of Leslie. Sure, Nancy doesn't get the screentime that Leslie does. Part of me thinks that it is because it is a role that was given to Allison Janney, who might be doing this movie a favor by being in the movie. Okay, that's me being a bit harsh, but it also feels like she's doing someone a favor. As is Stephen Root. But keep all of this in mind and maybe we need to be hopeful about Dutch and Nancy. Dutch and Nancy become awful people pretty quick. It's just that it is a bit of a mislead. I'm assuming that Dutch and Nancy are kind of like the shelter people for Sound of Metal. That's a movie I need to watch again, by the way. I assumed that they were these harsh taskmasters because they wanted to break Leslie down into someone that could be reformed and healthier.
Instead, they take that archetype and love that Leslie continues to fail. That's where I'm jumping on board the movie, by the way. As empathetic as I am (and my heart bleeds way too much), I think that there's a part of us that roots for failures to keep on failing. I don't know what it is about our wiring, but the knowledge that any progress is superficial is somehow comforting to us. I don't know. Maybe it is a me thing. But Morris points his camera right at Nancy for a lot of this. Nancy, the character who is labelled a saint, is the one that consistently forces Leslie to backslide. There's the scene at the fair. For all of the misery that Leslie has been through in forcing herself to go cold turkey, there's an element that wants to go back because Nancy is the one who doesn't believe in her. The knowledge that the saint has no time for you is pretty darned damning and that's what kind of gives me something to talk about with this movie. Yeah, Leslie can give the performance of a lifetime (and I don't know if that's true so much as it is just very good), but it is how critical the movie is of people who consider themselves good people that makes me want to care about the movie.
Honestly, I think that Dutch and Nancy see themselves as the heroes of the film. They are people who took a risk on someone who they knew would fail. They weren't subtle about it. They instead saw themselves as these altruistic do-gooders. But there's this element of stacking the deck against Leslie. This is fascinating for one reason: what's the role of tough love? I'm genuinely torn what I would do in Dutch and Nancy's situation. Let's say that I was open to welcoming someone into my home to get them clean. There would have to be rules. After all, James sets up Nancy with rules and she immediately breaks those rules, disappointing him beyond imagination. It's a hard scene to watch. We're led to believe that Dutch and Nancy would be these pillars of structure to the structureless. But there's also the notion of an unwinnable expectation.
Perhaps my frustration from this movie comes from the fact that it doesn't have a clear message. Okay, that's how reality is. I can't be that mad at the movie when reality doesn't have a clear answer for how to help people. But the closest takeaway is based on the notion of empathy. I often screamed at Sweeney because there is a danger to what Sweeney does. Okay, I said that there's no one in this movie that's me. If you remove the romantic elements of the story, I guess I can sort of relate to Sweeney. Leslie, sleeping on the outside of a motel, is worthy of pity. (You know, the definition of "pitiful"?) I would want to give Leslie a job. But also, where are his expectations that Leslie would be able to complete this job? I mean, he knows nothing about this woman. (Oh, I hear it too.) But he realistically could have had a dead body on his hands. See, now I'm torn. Leslie deserves a second chance, but Leslie is reactionary. There's no will to try to turn things around. If anything, Leslie never has that kind of redeemable trait where she tries to get healthy, but doesn't have the willpower to do it. Instead, Leslie seems to be the one who self-perpetuates her own misery.
All this leads to the notion that Sweeney develops romantic feelings for Leslie as something wildly inappropriate. I'm about to be me right now and I hate it too. The power dynamic between Sweeney and Leslie is night and day. Sweeney has his life together. He holds all of Leslie's sanity and health in the palm of his hands. Of course she reciprocates that love. It's the love of a child to a parent. Man, I know that this is based on a true story. But I wanted Sweeney and Leslie to just be friends so badly. Instead, this whole thing is based on dependence. I want to be on board. I did. Everything worked out fine. But...it shouldn't have? I mean, that could have gone down the toilet real fast. Ah well.
It's a good movie. I mean, I'm going to forget about this movie in a year. There are a handful of Oscar noms that stick out and this is another movie. But for the evening, I kind of got on board.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.