This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.
Unless is a film that woefully over-estimates its own profundity.
Unless is an indulgent, misguided, ill-judged, clumsy and offensive piece of work, a tone-deaf study of upper-middle-class ennui that laments the plight of characters at least two degrees of separation from an individual with an interesting perspective. Unless is a story about vicarious empathy, the tale of wealthy people whose response to horror and tragedy is to assume that they cannot feel true compassion for an individual’s suffering without embarking upon their own existential grief tourism.
All of this is compound by a script and direction that are suffocatingly heavy handed. As if afraid that its audience might somehow miss the subtle nuances of this tail of wealthy familial angst, Unless repeatedly trips into slow motion for the most mundane of moments as if hinting at some deeply-buried profundity. The music soars, even when the events of screen do not merit it, leading to a hilarious disconnect between the events happening and the movie’s estimation of them. And everything is ominously signposted, as characters muse endlessly in pseudo-evocative monologues about life.
Unless is, quite frankly, a terrible piece of film.
To be fair, the basic premise of Unless is intriguing. Catherine Keener plays Reta, a writer who is mother to three young daughters. Suddenly, one of those three daughters drops out of college and starts begging on a street corner. What prompted this decision? Why is Norah sitting on that corner holding a sign labelled “goodness”? Why has she suddenly gone mute? Why has she chosen to life a woman’s shelter? What is the point of all this? Is she reacting to something, or is she making a statement?
There is an interesting mystery there, one that opens up all manner of storytelling possibilities. There is the cliché possibility that Norah is simply reacting to something horrific that happened to her, or that she witnessed. There is the oh-so-cute possibility that Norah is making some broad philosophical statement of purpose, playing poverty chic as performance art. The mystery could be very literal and linear in nature, or it could become something altogether more abstract. There is an interesting hook here that could lead to a good story.
Unfortunately, the red flags come early and come often. The most immediately worrying detail is that Reta is presented as the central character, rather than Norah. As such, the audience is not invited to explore Norah’s motivations or perspective, they are instead asked to empathise with Reta’s horror and confusion that is one step removed from the central mystery. This is not a fatal flaw, to be clear. Plenty of mysteries are driven by the narratives of survivors or bystanders. The problem is that Norah is still an active agent in the story, and sidelining her suffering seems cynical.
This problem becomes even more pronounced as the film progresses, as Unless becomes less of a story about anything in particular as a narrative about reactions several steps removed from the actual story. Unless hints repeatedly at the plight of minority groups that exist outside the mainstream, most notably that of the homeless, although the film also hints at other religious and ethnic minorities. However, the film is only interested in that plight so much as it provides interest (or frustration) for its white upper-middle-class family.
Unless is the most cynical of explorations of upper-middle-class western listlessness, of the sense of purposelessness and anomie that nibble away at the wealthy. There are interesting stories to be told about that sense of social disconnect and the search for meaning, but they need to be told carefully. Instead, Unless plays very much like the appropriation of the suffering of the dispossessed to add meaning to the lives of those who live in luxury. There is something far too calculated and cynical in that.
This is very much reflected in the resolution of the movie’s central mystery. Eventually, Reta discovers why her daughter has been living homeless for weeks on end. However, the resolution is very much a narrative cheat, revealing a pretty major event that occurred on exactly the spot where Norah is now begging that should have been really obvious to any of the characters in the film if they paid any attention to the news or bothered to use a search engine. It is a lazy cop out that is unsatisfying from a dramatic standpoint, but which also gets at the rot right at the heart of Unless.
Although it is eventually revealed that Norah’s behaviour is in response to a particularly traumatic event, Unless is not interested in motivation or cause. There is no exploration of why that traumatic event occurred, or why that traumatic event inspired Norah to live homeless. Instead, Unless invests a lot of weight in vague feelings and sensations. Norah is not interested in understanding the people that she observes or emulates, she is instead invested in experiencing the texture of their day-to-day existence.
Indeed, Unless takes lurid pleasure in charting the degradations and humiliations that Norah experiences during her time wandering on the street, even when they add nothing to a sense of character and provide no real context for the life that Norah is living. Unless is a cavalcade of bad things happening to Norah, inviting the audience to feel sorrow and pity for her experiences without bothering to provide a context or reason. The important thing is that Norah suffers and that the audience feels sorry for her.
Unless treats homelessness and suffering as performative, feeling crass and exploitative. Norah might adopt the trappings of homelessness, but she is not really homeless. Her experiences might line-up in terms of the day-to-day suffering and the individual incidents, but Unless is never particularly interested in the difference between being homeless and acting homeless. Norah will always have a family that she can go home to, an upper middle-class life to which she can return. She can always “break character.” In fact, it is implied that she does at the shelter where she lives.
However, none of this really matters in the world of Unless, where Norah’s emulation of others’ plight is not even the primary focus of the story. Norah’s appropriation of other people’s suffering is itself filtered through the lens of Reta’s pseudo-profound monologues about parenthood and goodness and angst. Unless works hard to remove its audience from anybody who actually lives a horrific and painful existence, instead focusing on those operating at a remove. It is, at best, a false equivalence. At worst, it is downright tasteless.
The fact that Reta is a writer is another of those big red flags that Unless waves early in the story. Writers writing about writers can lead to fascinating stories. Woody Allen is particularly fond of the trope, to varying degrees of success, but there are also lots of other great examples from Adaptation to Misery. However, writers writing about writers can also lead to all sorts of crazy indulgences, long and winding meditations upon nonsense that are treated as windows into the human condition.
Unless is populated by these sorts of diversions. Reta provides awkward voice-overs at several points in the film, trying to explain what is happening in the most long-winded and pseudo-philosophical manner possible. These voice-overs are indulgences that grind the slow-moving film to a halt, particularly when coupled with establishing shots lifted right from the big book of indie movie clichés. There are shots of idyllic countryside, giving way to shots of the family’s nice house, giving way to even closer shots of the family’s nice house.
To be fair, it isn’t only Reta who makes these cod philosophical diversions. At various points in the narrative, other characters weigh in on the situation while refusing to offer anything resembling a literal declaration. The characters in Unless talk in abstracts and strained metaphors, sounding less like individuals and more like sentient paragraphs of allegorical commentary. Even characters who have never interacted before will launch into tortured metaphors about leaves and trees.
All of this is compounded by how heavily over-signified Unless is. Again, the red flags come early and often. The fact that Norah sits down with a cardboard sound labelled “goodness” is an early warning sign, as is her choice of corner. Norah decides to make her stand outside an ironically-titled convenience store labelled “Honest Ed’s.” Helpfully, the advertising copy advises, “Don’t Just Stand There!” Repeatedly over the course of the film, characters watch news footage of riots and protests, as if to provide some sense of importance to Norah’s gesture.
Unless is a disaster of a film, a horribly constructed movie about a clumsy and ill-judged story with an unearned appraisal of it own merits.
I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1