Certain People I Know
By Greg Cwik
Dir. Alex Ross Perry, U.S., Vertical Entertainment
Golden Exits, Alex Ross Perry’s fifth feature, takes place in an idyllic Brooklyn neighborhood, small and safe and lily-white, replete with families and dogs; where flaxen sunlight washes over the brownstones and pours through the trees; where complacency can lead, in time, to stagnation; where bar regulars have their usual seats and eat lunch at the same places and lives intersect. These lives, led by middle-aged professionals, are akin to closed circuits, yet the film has the structure of a broken circle, like the partial ring of a beer glass soaked into a coaster.
In the film’s opening moments, an airplane cuts across the sky as a honey-voiced rendition of “New York Groove” begins. The voice, whose sweetness eschews both the British glamour of Hello and the American sleaze of Ace Frehley (whose version of the song was allegedly inspired by a nocturnal stroll through a prostitute-laden Times Square in the 1970s), belongs to 25-year-old Naomi (Emily Browning). She sits alone on the terra cotta-colored steps of a Brooklyn brownstone, cooing to herself, seemingly glowing in the late afternoon sun. It’s April. There’s something almost empyrean about the image. Before Naomi reaches the verse about the “wicked lady” in the Cadillac, the song gives way to Keegan DeWitt’s lovely and indolent piano score, reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi in its mournful insinuations, and these three distinct sounds (an airplane far overhead; a demure version of a sometimes-seedy song; and the piano tune) let us know that this is a film about listening as much as it is watching—and specifically the failure to listen. The articulate assholes at the center of Golden Exits love to hear the sounds of their own voices, but they struggle to hear each other. The characters are loquacious, intransigent, solipsistic. They have an utter lack of empathy for each other, and lead lives besotted by the need for routine. When these routines are interrupted, things fall apart, in subtle moments of emotional instability and cloying paranoia. These have been recurring ideas in Perry’s films: think of Rich and the anxiety he causes the already unstable Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) in Queen of Earth, a film about the past enduring like a ghost. If Golden Exits isn’t quite as dramatic—there are no histrionic mental breakdowns—it still depicts the past as a skulking agent of chaos, and forgiveness as always just out of reach.
“Let’s just let this whole affair be simple,” Nick (Adam Horovitz) says, hands held up as if in resignation. “‘Affair,’” Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker), his sister-in-law, sniggers. “What a horrible choice of words.” She draws out her words, basking in her moment of triumph. Their mutual abhorrence is relentless and unalloyed. Later, to her assistant, Sam (Lily Rabe), who is unable to get a word in edgewise, Gwen rants about Nick’s worthlessness. Some years ago, Nick had an affair, and his wife, Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), Gwen’s younger sister, hasn’t been able to trust him since, no matter how caring and earnest he tries to be.
An archivist, Nick is cataloguing the personal effects of Alyssa and Gwen’s late father, a publisher who amassed a great deal of materials (not, Nick insists, “documents”). Nick’s own past haunts him, yet his vocation is keeping alive the pasts of others. He lives and works in the same neighborhood, the smallness of which others “find stifling,” but which excites him. He is not adventurous. It’s almost as if he doesn’t want the temptation to stray, to get lost or meander off, though he puts himself in that exact situation by employing the alluring Naomi, who has come from Australia to assist and study under Nick. She’s his eighth assistant, six of whom have been female; he prefers women because they have a “meticulous quality” that allows them to “excel more naturally,” a fallacious rationale that leaves his sister-in-law vexed and his wife disquieted.
Alyssa and Gwen are apprehensive about this young, attractive assistant, though the repentant, soft-spoken man we meet, hunched over his desk, examining relics from a bygone life in his brown-hued office, doesn’t seem like the type who would be unfaithful. (Alyssa later tells us that Nick has been loyal and rehabilitated for the last six years.) But what, exactly, would that type look like? Sights, like sounds, can’t always be trusted in Perry’s film, and Nick, like Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), of whom Naomi has become enamored, both have Lothario-like tendencies. With his paunch and long hair and assortment of baggy denim jackets, Buddy looks like a mid-aughts Williamsburg habitué aged by ten years, and he seems just as bored by his marriage to Jess (Analeigh Tipton), who runs a music studio with Buddy.
Gwen, meanwhile, revels in her freedom, lambasting her sister’s decision to marry Nick. In boasting of her autonomy, she seems to be projecting, perhaps lamenting her youth (she mentions Naomi’s age more than once). It recalls a quote from one of the great novels about a marriage disintegrating, James Salter’s Light Years: “She formed her life day by day, taking as its materials the emptiness and panic as well as the rushes, like fever, of contentment. I am beyond fear of solitude, she thought, I am past it. The idea thrilled her. I am beyond it and I will not sink. This submission, this triumph made her stronger. It was as if finally, after having passed through inferior stages, her life had found a form worthy of it.” As with Salter’s Nedra, an unhappily married woman who finally frees herself of her husband, one can’t be sure if Gwen’s acceptance of solitude is genuine, a necessary adaptation, or simply a ruse.
Selfishness and self-imposed misery suffuse the films of Alex Ross Perry. He is drawn to bored and broken people who, whether emasculated or isolated, dwell in loneliness and long for companionship, despite pretending otherwise. In Listen Up Philip, Philip decimates his relationship to pursue a writing career; Ike, having done the same thing many years earlier, now ostracizes his daughter and, being a vain man, takes Philip under his wing, imbuing him with the knowledge of a miserable old man. “I can't process how grossly dissatisfied I find myself feeling,” the narcissistic Philip says. “Things I've coveted for years are mine now and all I feel is miserable.” His mentor, the Philip Roth-like Ike Zimmerman, retorts, “Don't make yourself any more miserable than you need to be. Leave that to the women you love.” Nick works alone in his sanctuary, accompanied only by the materials of a dead man and, eventually, Naomi. When asked if he gets lonely, he says, no, yet it’s only when his eyes wander over to Naomi that they light up.
Perhaps a little young to be making grand statements about middle-age, the 33-year-old Perry lets the cast bring the ennui and life experience. Sevigny, in particular, doesn’t have to say a word to express a sense of dejection. Once made out to be the coolest girl in the world in an infamous New Yorker profile by Jay McInerney (she was a teenager at the time), Sevigny, now 43 and playing a character married to a man a decade her senior, carries an air of experience, the kind of wise sadness one can only acquire over time. Perry, a dexterous, malleable director of actors, has coaxed a career-best performance from Schwartzman (in Listen Up Philip) and two startlingly intimate ones from Elisabeth Moss (in Philip and Queen of Earth). Here, he finds a muse in Emily Browning. In Sleeping Beauty (2009), the dreamy, soporific debut from novelist Julia Leigh, she found a delicate balance between salacious and serene, playing a young woman strapped for cash who finds unconventional means to make the rent; that same year, she starred in Zack Snyder’s cacophonous Sucker Punch (antipodal in every sense to Sleeping Beauty, as it is neither sleepy nor beautiful), stealing the film from the bevy of computer-generated monstrosities over which Snyder fawns. In Golden Exits, Browning is finally given material worthy of her talents. She evinces a vague unhappiness, the tedium of a life spent going from place to place, infatuation to infatuation.
Horovitz, aka Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys, is not really known for nuance (he cut his teeth writing songs boasting of his affinity for parties, warm beer, and girls of all ethnicities), but his performance here, sodden with self-pity, harkens back to the lyric: “One lonely Beastie I be / All by myself without nobody.” In his office, talking to Naomi in a pedagogic and vaguely flirtatious way, Nick appears ill at ease. Horovitz plays it fidgety and awkward, his leg tightly crossed as he nervously swivels back and forth, his brow furrowed as Nick explains the job, an innocuous moment nevertheless surrounded by an air of unease. As the Boys put it: “There never was a city kid truer and bluer.”
In his five films, Perry has exclusively written irredeemably selfish characters, who opt to remain in their own comfort zones, yet he sustains a consistent empathy, never dismissing or torturing them. There’s a Sisyphean desperation to their yearnings. These characters earn your ire not because they’re “bad people,” but because Perry gives them chances to rectify their mistakes, and still they slip into old habits, still they screw up. The empathy for and our eventual disappointment in Nick is especially painful. From the opening moments, Nick comes across as the Good Guy, Gwen as querulous and embittered. First impressions are often false, however; on his birthday, his mind inundated with enough alcohol to inspire bad decisions, Nick shows up at Naomi’s front door, begging her to wish him a happy birthday. Even here, Nick still comes across as more principled than his friend Greg (Craig Butta), gaudy and gross and portly in his denim jacket, a guy who loudly praises the luscious “cooter” of his latest 20-something female conquest. Nick and Buddy, a friend of Greg’s who is the last to arrive, trade barbs about infidelity and licentious yearnings—neither aware that the young woman for whom they both lust is the same. Life ties knots.
In their 16mm photography and dearth of modern technology and general malaise, Perry’s three most recent films—Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth, and now Golden Exits—approach nostalgia as if it were an affliction rather than a trendy position. They take place now, but seem to have one foot in the past. The former two films are comedies, Listen Up Philip outright and acerbic; Queen of Earth, more slyly, in the guise of a Polanski-inspired psychosexual drama. Golden Exits, the richest and most mature of these, is a sort of chamber melodrama; like Bergman and Allen, whose influences are palpable, Perry performs a trenchant examination on modern love and its many maladies. Here, he finds transcendence in the quotidian habits and rituals of privileged white thirty- and forty-somethings, locating something profoundly beautiful and tragic in their discomforting familiarity and the sense of regret hanging over everything like a veil. Who hasn’t felt bored despite a comfortable life? Who hasn’t messed up a relationship, or been at least momentarily imbecilic? But for Perry’s sad Brooklyn denizens, there is little mitigation. They simply continue their lives, having learned, apparently, nothing. They keep going around in wobbly circles, like the wheels on the cart Nick drags to and from work every day.
Perry, working again with the prodigiously talented and prolific cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who shot seven projects, both film and television, in 2017), makes decisions that reward patience and repeated viewings. For Queen of Earth and Listen Up Philip, Williams used longer lenses and filmed characters from across rooms, lending his close-ups a vertiginous air. Here, faces in dismay are captured in classical, statuary close-ups that suggest something epic encroaching. The camera movements he used in Philip and Queen have gotten steadier—when he moves the camera, it’s with slow, precise pans and zooms: in one scene, as Sam expounds upon the mutually vindictive relationship between Gwen and Adam, the camera drifts over to Sam, slowly zooming in on her. It’s claustrophobic, as though pressuring her to divulge private information, to talk about people in their absence, enabling her. Editing choices also extrapolate the self-pity these characters try to hide, as when a shot of Adam dissolves to a moon, lonely and cold. In a pointed scene, Schwartzman stares, with palpable sadness, at Naomi; he’s doused in purple light, and her eyes turn toward him as her mouth remains against another man’s. Characters are often layered, one in the foreground, the other in the back, their placement and the use of rack focus expressing the emotional distance between them. He doesn’t try to hide his influences, but he also doesn’t succumb to torpid imitation. The layering recalls Gordon Willis’s work in Allen’s Interiors, without the darkness and chiaroscuro lighting.
Perry has said that he wanted Golden Exits be “without a single moment or bit of characterization that could possibly be thought of as abrasive, confrontational, negative, what have you.” If this was an earnest aspiration, he failed. Golden Exits may not be as abrasive as his previous films, but it’s all still imbued with a sense of defeat. “I would love a situation without torment or turmoil, and I believe that is in reach,” Nick says. The characters, like Perry, are trying to avoid confrontation; this is a self-aware film about characters who think they’re self-aware because they talk about themselves. They speak in baroque soliloquies just to fill the silence. Perry’s pugnacious dialogue has a lyrical quality, the careful elocution of unnatural yet fluid lines that can only come from the mind of a writer, but it’s the quiet moments that are most pregnant with negativity. The saddest lines are the ones never said. The desires are unspoken, and they will remain unfulfilled.