Almost ten years ago Kenneth Lonergan made a film about a brother and sister that seemed painfully realistic. Buried beneath the nuances was something universally identifiable for those of us who have siblings. The film had two breakthrough performances from Laura Linney, one of our finest actresses working today, and Mark Ruffalo, channeling his inner Brando (his characters name is even Terry, reminding the viewer of Brando's finest performance from On the Waterfront) and doing a helluva job never hamming it up. The film is You Can Count On Me, a small, almost completely forgotten film from 2000 that will probably go unremembered by the time all the "best of" lists commemorating the decade in film come out next year; however, it's a film of tremendous power and honesty, a film that evades every conventional emotional "gotcha" moment to deliver something honest and understated. In other words: real. Executive produced by Lonergan's friend Martin Scorsese, it's easy to see how he was attracted to such a familial story (think about the families in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull), but friendship aside (Lonergan went on to help write Gangs of New York) I think Scorsese saw a film that had special elements in it: a film that doesn't play by Hollywood's conventions when it comes to a family drama.
Sammy (Linney) and Terry (Ruffalo) are brother and sister, and as the film opens we find out their parents have died. Immediately Lonergan shows great control of the dramatic action as he handles this opening scene with visual language, rather than having the characters spell it out for the viewer in a fit of false tears and overacting. A policeman comes to the door to inform the babysitter that something awful has happened. Lonergan then cuts from the police officer, who hasn't said exactly what's happened (we knows there's been a crash, but we don't know how bad it is) to a church steeple. The effect is far greater than how these types of scenes are usually handled.
Flash forward to present day and we see Sammy taking care of her eight-year old son Rudy. Sammy is taking care of Rudy by herself, and we get the sense early on that she raised Terry, too. Sammy hears from Terry and prepares for his return. There is something especially recognizable and wonderful about the way Sammy glows at the news of Terry's arrival. The prodigal son (or brother in this case) is returning.
When we meet Terry he is bumming money off of his girlfriend and telling her that when he gets back she may want to think about moving out. Terry is someone who is not sure what they want, a borderline drifter who feels happiest when he isn't challenged or asked to honestly excavate his feelings. Meanwhile Sammy is preparing for Terry's return only for Terry to tell her that he "got on the wrong bus". Terry is in town, he's just not ready to face his sister yet.
Their reunion, when it does finally happen, turn sour quickly as Terry makes his intentions known. He plans on asking Sammy for money, and then bolting the next day. Later Terry spends the night at Sammy's and learns of his girlfriends attempted suicide. This breaks Terry, and in a great scene of power Lonergan stays on the scene just long enough for us to feel something for Terry, but he doesn't dwell there; this is a special moment shared between brother and sister, and the viewer isn't meant to see the whole thing. What follows is Terry staying in town, getting to know his nephew Rudy (disappointing him along the way), and Sammy acting like an immature high school girl towards the two men (her lovers, more on them later) in her life.
What I love about the film is the way Lonergan just kind of hangs around and lets us watch these characters grow, think, mess up, and just act like normal people, not over wrought caricatures designed solely to tug-at-the-heart-strings. Linney earned herself an Oscar nomination for the film, which is amazing considering that there aren't really any "Oscar" scenes in the film. Everything is underplayed, and played for a more contemplative effect, rather than a spur-of-the-moment, manipulate-your-emotions effect.
There's one moment in particular that I'm thinking of that sums up the many layers to the film. Terry and Rudy are getting along great, and Terry is something of a positive male role model in Rudy's life, something he's never had. Terry treats Rudy like an adult, talking to him like an adult, taking him to to adult things like playing pool and such. Terry has told Rudy that he will take him fishing, only later int he week Terry is upset with Sammy because she has sabotaged him by asking the local priest to come over and see what's "wrong" with Terry and his lack of direction in life. How does Terry take out his frustrations? Not on Sammy, the person who raised him (and is still raising him), but by punishing Rudy and simply telling him, in a very eight-year old manner, that he is no longer taking him fishing. Later that night in the hallway Sammy, immediately on Terry's game, tells him that he can punish her any number of ways, she understands that he's pissed at her, but don't take it out on Rudy by canceling the one event he's been looking most forward to. Terry passively aggressively states that he isn't punishing Rudy and that after what she and the priest said he just doesn't think that it would be a good idea for Rudy to around such a poor role model. Sammy's response: "you suck", and she throws some towels at him.
It's a scene that could have been played a number of different Ordinary People type ways, ways that serve as nothing more than Oscar-bait. But I love how Lonergan writes that scene, putting an exclamation on it by having Sammy say something that is real, and actually kind of funny. Is it a crap thing for Terry to do? Yes, but it's the type of moment that happens in a lot of families, and it's not the end of the world. It's something that makes you laugh because the scene has a familiar ring to it.
Terry does redeem himself by picking up Rudy for fishing the next morning, but he continues his buffoonery and immature actions by taking Rudy to see his estranged father. This scene is a forgone conclusion the moment we hear Terry talking about it. Once again, watch the way Ruffalo acts through this scene. Always sure of what he's doing, but as the viewer we know that his immaturity will get the best of him and the scene can only end badly.
Terry isn't the only one who is immature and unsure of their life path, Sammy is also trying to figure out what she wants. Once Terry moves in we see that Sammy is now back to raising Terry, in addition to raising Rudy. Lonergan makes the obvious connection here that Terry is no different than the eight-year old Rudy. Terry tries to make Rudy aware of how bad life is and how much of a simulacrum their little town is, and that he's be wise to get out of the town as soon as he can. Terry is just as fake though, never quite knowing what it is he wants, not only does his body language and temper-tantrum moments make him no more mature than Rudy (there is even a moment when he makes Rudy "promise" not to tell Sammy about taking him to a pool hall, making Terry sound just as much the kid as Rudy), his pseudo philosophies and the way he evades deep questions by firing back at Sammy's phoniness is no better than thousands of first time Cather in the Rye readers. Terry obviously is an emotionally underdeveloped male who resorts to brat-like moments when he thinks he has been wronged. There is a scene where he thinks Rudy has gone back on his "promise" about the pool hall incident, so instead of spending the day with him he drops Rudy off at his babysitters and tells him if he doesn't want to be adult about things and tell mommy about everything then he's going to spend the afternoon at the babies house. Ruffalo is astonishingly annoying and affective in this scene as he clearly gets across Terry's insecurities and childishness.
Sammy is not necessarily above Terry, either. Her downfalls are in the fact that she has always been responsible for raising boys, whether it be Terry, her childish ex-husband, and now Rudy, she has never had time for herself. She mistakes the abrupt nature of her having to act like an adult as a free pass for her to act childish herself once Terry is there to look after Rudy during the night. Sammy's been dating a man named Bob off and on. A year ago she was probably ready to marry him, but thinking on it now she's not ready; however she still calls him every now and then for some afternoon delight. The way she rings him up and her flippant "it's just sex" attitude shows how she too is as mature as high school student. Bob eventually pops the question, and all Sammy can do is laugh. Her response is to sleep with her new micro-managing boss Brad (played wonderfully by Matthew Broderick), who is in an unhappy marriage. Her and Brad rendezvous often, and it's an added layer to Sammy's character as we see her screw up time and time again that she knows Bob is the solid one, the obvious choice for a husband, but even during somewhat of a reconciliation with Bob after the proposal fiasco she realizes that she is late for her afternoon romp with Brad, and immediately leaves Bob with many unanswered questions.
Sammy may be seen as an irresponsible mother -- bouncing back and forth between two lovers, leaving Terry to put Rudy to bed so she can go off and have a good time -- but it's in these mistakes that makes Sammy's character so recognizable. The town priest sees her as an example, a beacon of how to do life right, but when she goes to see him and tells him that she is sleeping with a married man while stringing a decent guy like Bob along, the priest (played by Lonergan) simply feels compassion for her while Sammy is looking for more of a fire and brimstone type of punishment. This is what causes the visit from the priest to sting so much for Terry. He knows she's been sleeping with Brad, so when the priest says that Terry should be more like Sammy, it hurts, because now Sammy, the closest person to Terry, has become nothing more than a contradiction, one of the phonies that Terry rails against.
Terry and Sammy (and Brad for that matter) are real character types that we know, work with, or are ourselves. To err is human, and so rarely do we get a film that understands that people screw up, and that it doesn't have to be so extreme, it doesn't have to be an intense drama about a flawed character like Leaving Las Vegas (which is a great film, don't get me wrong) or a hokey parable about flawed people who learn to right their wrongs ala Bruce Almighty (not such a good movie). Lonergan's film is filled with the emotions that correlate with dealing with everyday problems and the results of trying the best you can to work those problems out.
Through all of the muck and mire Sammy will always love Terry, no matter how many times he screws up, and no matter how many times he reminds her that she's not the saint that everyone in town thinks she is. Lonergan's film touches on something deep and true about sibling relationships: even though we may be frustrated by them, it's almost impossible to severe those ties. The ending is so subtle in its power, not to mention it's a clinic in great acting. Terry is leaving and him and Sammy sit on a bench at the bus stop. They are thinking about the events that have occurred since he's been there, and how they as brother and sister have grown-up a bit. Sammy is crushed that Terry doesn't know where he's going or when he'll be able to get a hold of her. Terry pleads with her that she just has to trust him; trust him that he cares about her and Rudy, and trust him that he is responsible to take care of himself (something that is probably hard for a big sister who raised a little brother with no parents around). Terry comforts Sammy the only way he knows how, by telling her to remember and hold onto the "thing" they used to say to each other all the time as kids. This causes Sammy to cry uncontrollably, nodding her head she hugs Terry as he continues to ask "do you remember?" Here Lonergan does the right thing by never telling us what it is. This is Sammy and Terry's secret, their moment of the past, their password that made everything okay for a brother and a sister who had their parents taken away from them. And we don't need to know it, rather the viewer is left to think about their own "moments" with their brother and sister, and Lonergan and his wonderful actors nail this scene and make it better than any kind of Chris Columbus-type scene with "We Are Family" playing in the background.
Even though Sammy ultimately roots for Terry and will always believe in him, and no matter how powerful the final scene of the film is, there is also a more ambiguous feeling to the end scene. The moment Sammy cries and pleads for Terry to stick around, he is uncomfortable, and it's fair to say that one can view the ending as nothing more than Terry pulling out cliches from his bag of tricks he's used on Sammy over the years. When Terry tells Sammy that they'll have Christmas together, you can't help but think he's trying to do anything to make the tears stop for Sammy, perhaps alleviating some of her grief over him leaving, but more than anything just trying to make the moment less awkward for him. I think the moment when he tells her to remember what they used to say to each other as kids undercuts the selfish-Terry reading, but it's definitely there, and the fact that the ending (or the entire film) provides no real major epiphanies for the characters, you have to at least consider the fact that Terry hasn't changed by the end of the film.
You Can Count On Me is a rare film, a family drama that has genuine moments shared by the characters, moments that we as the viewer are not privy to, but have an inkling of what it is they're getting at because of our own experiences with the people in our lives who remind us of Sammy and Terry. This isn't an over-dramatic, screaming sibling rivalry film that goes for the easy emotional punch; it's a film that lingers on moments. Lonergan's camera takes its time and meanders though the small town capturing real-life moments that remind the viewer of the kind of honest, documentary-like filmmaking style of John Cassavetes. This film really is a testament to what a talent Lonergan is, he uses some great visuals like the opening and the way he uses buses to show the transitional phases of these characters; not to mention the fact that Sammy has to pick up Rudy and Terry (her children) at bus stops throughout the film. But it's also a film that showcases what tremendous actors Linney and Ruffalo are. Ruffalo's Terry is a performance that catapulted him to many starring roles, and Sammy got Linney a well deserved Oscar nomination and solidified her place as one of the go-to actresses who may not grace the cover of magazines (Joan Allen and Catherine Keener are others, too), but turn in great, under-appreciated performances film after film. This was 2000's best film of the year and it's certainly an under-advertised masterpiece.
It's sad that Lonergan hasn't had anything released since this film. He did help Scorsese write Gangs of New York, but it's been a Malick-like absence from him since he wrote and directed this film. He's had a ton of issues getting his next film, Margret released. The film stars Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Alison Janney, and Rosmarie DeWitt, but it has yet to get a solid release date. The film was made in 2005 or 2006 and was set to be released in 2007 and has just kept getting pushed back. The film sounds an awful lot like The Sweet Hereafter, but based on Lonergan's work here with You Can Count On Me and the way he handles big dramatic moments delicately (making them almost feel too nuanced or subtle) I have faith that Margaret can be a great film.