Sibling Rivalry
Matt Connolly on You Can Count on Me and Crimes of the Heart

The family has always occupied an oddly supporting role in mainstream American cinema. It clucks disapproval or offers encouragement in romantic comedies/dramas and musicals, perennially playing second fiddle to a heterosexual romance. It exists to be endangered in many westerns and action/adventure films, both humanizing the tough male hero and allowing him to prove his abilities as a masculine protector. Even high-toned prestige pictures frequently view the family solely in terms of the influence it’s had on a single protagonist or couple. The daily experience of living with one’s parents, siblings, and extended relatives—within the same physical space, social network, or emotional/psychological web—is rarely afforded the sole focus of a Hollywood film. Of course, one can pluck out a multitude of exceptions to this rule, from The Magnificent Ambersons to Terms of Endearment to The Family Stone. But even then, the spotlight is largely predicated upon the outsize emotional fireworks or extreme circumstances in which we see them. Movie studios rarely deem the family worthy of primary interest unless the ante is significantly upped: historical significance and material opulence; life-threatening illnesses; and/or skeleton-after-rattling-skeleton yanked out of the closet. (Is it any wonder that so many familial sagas are also crime epics, the rivalries and recriminations made relevant via generous splashes of blood?)

Independent cinema would seemingly provide the ideal opportunity to illuminate the quotidian conflicts and complex emotional tapestries that mark familial life. Theoretically freed from Hollywood’s hoary assumptions and market-driven skittishness, the indie camera’s lens not only promises the chance for heretofore unseen individuals to have their stories told, but provides a means by which to correct, complicate, or outright reject how mainstream film has previously represented more established issues. One does not have to think hard to line up a lengthy list of small-budget comedies and dramas whose primary narrative thrust revolves around the trials and tribulations of a dysfunctional brood—the vast majority of them released in the last 20 years, when the American independent film movement went mainstream. Yet many of these indie family sagas seemed to have merely internalized the dynamics of the mainstream, swapping over-the-top melodrama for liberal sprinklings of quirk. “Transgressive” subplots (i.e. queer sexuality or drug use), amplified regionalism, or hyped-up eccentricities already seen in Hollywood movies all serve to label the family as explicitly “out there,” and therefore worthy of consideration. The only difference lies in what brand of peculiarity is deemed marketable.

The marginal box-office prospects for most independent films has undoubtedly pushed many in the direction of niche-market pandering, yet it would be wrong to deny that the lowered financial expectations bestowed upon indie cinema has allowed a smaller contingent of filmmakers to offer more nuanced and relaxed depictions of the ties that bind (and ensnare, and strangle). Now and then, the combination of decent distribution, small-but-not-microscopic budgets, and the fair amount of artistic freedom offered by such “indiewood” distributors as Fox Searchlight and Focus Features have resulted in films that push through standard-issue treatment of familial issues while side-stepping the faux-edgy dead ends seen in so many pre-baked “slices-of-life.” Indeed, in an age of perennial teeth-gnashing over the compromised state of independent film, such small triumphs can help remind us that indie movies can still do what everyone claimed it would: offer a genuine artifact in the face of ersatz mainstream product.


In some ways, 2000’s Paramount Classics release You Can Count on Me and 1986’s De Laurentiis Entertainment Group release Crimes of the Heart share a fair amount of narrative ground. Both concern adult siblings whose individual lives and interpersonal dynamics remain perennially shaped by the early disappearance of their parents. The three Magrath sisters in Crimes of the Heart saw their father walk out and their mother subsequently commit suicide; while You Can Count on Me’s brother-sister duo lost their folks in an automobile accident. These tragedies hang over both families, but remain secondary to more immediate crises that bring wayward family members back to their respective small hometowns. Meg Magrath (Jessica Lange) leaves Hollywood to return to Hazelhurst, Mississippi, after learning from lovelorn older sister Lenny (Diane Keaton) that younger sister Babe (Sissy Spacek) is in jail after shooting her husband for reasons unknown. Lost soul Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo) journeys to his childhood home of Scottsville, New York, in You Can Count on Me, though the reasons are decidedly less tabloid-ready than those in Crimes of the Heart. He’s broke and needs to hit up older sister Sammy (Laura Linney) for cash for himself and his pregnant girlfriend. Both plots tend to amble more than gallop, lingering on the sometimes tender, often fraught interactions between the grown siblings as they work towards some sort of emotional equilibrium.

The presumed audiences and prospects for each film certainly cannot account for all differences between the two, but they surely help to contextualize how each frame their comparable stories of rural family discord. Crimes of the Heart cannot be slotted into the role of studio-sanctioned product quite as easily as one might imagine. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group technically qualified as an “independent” company, with the foregrounding of an impresario producer that recalls earlier extra-studio forays by the likes of David O. Selznick. Whatever its relation to the majors, however, its choices in material and talent align it closely with mainstream predilections. An adaptation of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway hit, Crimes of the Heart was helmed by Bruce Beresford—an Academy Award-nominated purveyor of such tastefully down-home character studies as Tender Mercies—and starring three actresses who, at the time of filming, had 10 Oscar nominations between them and one statue a piece. Some eccentricities aside, there’s no denying that Beresford and company were swinging for the awards-gold fences here. You Can Count on Me possesses a humbler pedigree, though it’s not a product of the micro-budget, no-name indie wilderness. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan had won acclaim for years as a New York playwright, and star Linney was a recognizable supporting actress seen in such late-90s hits as Congo, Absolute Power, and The Truman Show. Ruffalo had a lower profile then, but supporting player Matthew Broderick bolstered the cast’s visibility, following his middle-aged milquetoast-cad in Election with a similarly self-effacing performance as Sammy’s natty boss. And while You Can Count on Me was produced by the bona fide (and now defunct) independent company Shooting Gallery, it found distribution through the boutique division of a major Hollywood conglomerate. In short, it falls safely within the confines of the Indiewood spectrum, though it exists on its less-star-seeking outer limits.

Crimes of the Heart has a pleasantly rambling tone, full of agreeable digressions into sisterly bonding and bitter screaming matches. Yet for so leisurely-paced a film, Crimes of the Heart also possesses a curiously manic and overcooked quality. Mama Magrath hanged an old cat along with herself. (A cutout from a local newspaper shows both of them laid out side-by-side on the lawn, covered in white sheets.) Babe shot her husband after he mistreated Willie Jay (Gregory Travis), a fifteen-year-old black teenager with whom Babe was carrying on a clandestine affair. Even Lenny’s romantic neuroses have their roots in her insecurities over a deformed ovary, which Babe and Meg comment upon openly. The film’s Southern Gothic excesses never quite edge into Tennessee Williams–esque psychodrama, but it still fit snugly into Hollywood’s previous representation of familial tensions as intrinsically melodramatic and outsized. What’s more, it’s handled in a similar fashion, with characters engaging with inherited issues by hashing them out in wistful moonlit monologues or table-slamming blow-outs. The past informs the present by violently asserting itself through sudden emotional eruptions, which unsurprisingly prime the pump for the kind of capital-A acting that draws the eyes of the Academy.

Still, how seductive to imagine that one enormous, scorched-earth argument could clear away years of psychological detritus? You Can Count on Me possesses no such illusions, acknowledging the profound impact of previous traumas while keeping the focus firmly within the present. This is unexpected, given that the film opens with a shot of Sammy and Terry’s parents, chatting amiably moments before their sudden demise. That their deaths receive so little direct acknowledgment throughout the film makes this brief snippet, as well as the shots of the young siblings during the funeral service, feel at once banal and elusive, exerting an imperceptible yet constant weight upon Terry and Sammy’s lives. Other long-ago issues surface now and again—Terry’s aimless wanderings; Sammy’s wild-child past and tumultuous relationship with her ex-husband (Josh Lucas) and father to her young son Rudy (Rory Culkin)—but the details remain artfully indistinct, inviting us to look for their residue in the siblings’ daily lives. What drives Terry to habitual bar fights and general hell-raising? Why does Sammy begin an affair with Broderick’s testy Brian, falling into bed not hours after meeting his pregnant wife? Lonergan develops this shared penchant for recklessness with such specificity and naturalism that easy explanations give way to a richer consideration of tragedy’s subtly warping aftershocks.

This is seen with particular clarity in the rhythms of Terry and Sammy’s relationship. Terry may be a self-indulgent screw-up, but he possesses a no-BS candor that both bristles and enlivens the carefully contained Sammy. For her part, Sammy’s responsible single-mom exterior frequently slips to reveal kinkier underpinnings, which she covers up by transposing both her care-taking impulses and insecurities onto Terry. These dynamics play out through scene after perfectly modulated scene of quotidian conflict. Terry takes Rory out to a bar to play a game of pool, and Sammy finds out. Sammy arranges an intervention for Terry with a kind, clear-eyed local priest (Lonergan), and Terry bristles at Sammy’s hypocrisy given her own sexual dalliances. It takes a couple of viewings to realize just how skillfully Lonergan suggests the thorny depths of their mutual dependency, without ever resorting to dead-parent flashbacks or drunken-dinner-table speechifying.

This respect for the complicated emotional currents lapping beneath the average life can be seen in how You Can Count on Me represents its rural setting and characters. Lonergan frames the fictional town of Scottsville as a sleepy hamlet, heavily influenced by Catholicism and the twangy longing of country music. His perspective is bemused but always affectionate, even when pointing to the grittier enclaves that lie within the area, as seen in a late-film visit to Rory’s biological father that finds him living in a rundown house littered with car parts and other refuse. Its residents radiate calmness and decency, if also touched by a small-town love of gossip and a geniality that can border on the suffocating. One can see why Sammy chose to stay, and also why Terry left.

Subtle atmospherics are not Crimes of the Heart’s stock in trade. The sisters seem largely cut off from the larger town, which shares a similar middle/lower-class dichotomy as Scottsville but lacks acknowledgment of how these differences work their way into the characters’ lives. Perhaps this isolation makes thematic sense given the sisters’ ignominious reputations within the town, but it also ensures that other characters become little more than plot devices. Willie Jay is a largely mute victim, while Babe’s husband (Beeson Carroll) comes off as little more than a mustachioed bigot. The supporting women don’t fare much better, especially shrill next-door neighbor and cousin Chick (Tess Harper), a sweets-munching busybody who swoops into the Magrath household mostly to belittle and boss around Lenny, until she grows a backbone by film’s end. For a movie purportedly about the resilience of women in the face of demons without and within, Chick comes off as a particularly graceless cipher, and exemplifies the sort of “crazy Southerner” clichés that worm their way into many a mainstream depiction of life below the Mason-Dixon Line. Mind you, neither film succeeds or fails entirely in this department. Sam Shepard plays Doc Porter, Meg’s former flame, with an undertow of melancholy sensuality; while both Broderick’s Brian and his wife occasionally border on caricature.

The sense that little exists outside of the Magraths’ wrestling with their own familial demons can be partially attributed to the film’s visual style, which attempts to overcome the stage-bound aspects of Henley’s text but often ends up reinforcing the hermetic quality of many play-to-film adaptations. Much of the film unspools in dialogue-driven scenes within the imposing old Magrath house, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti uses its doorways and shadows to effectively convey the sense of its familiar and entrapping geography. Yet his long takes and leisurely crane shots mostly serve to highlight the physically constricted and somewhat airless nature of the film itself. A single image sums up this curious quality. Having attempted to hang herself on the upstairs chandelier until her weight rips it out of the ceiling, Babe walks down the stairs to answer the telephone, rope still around her neck and dislodged chandelier loudly clanking behind her. It’s a darkly funny collision of the macabre and banal, but the impact of Babe potentially following in her mother’s footsteps barely registers. Compare it to the moments of quiet aloneness poetically dispersed throughout You Can Count on Me, as when Terry sits in Sammy’s bathtub, staring uncomprehendingly at the tidiness of her bathroom; or Sammy’s roiling waves of exhilaration and guilt driving home from sleeping with Brian. They offer a glimpse of human beings in telling repose. In comparison, Babe’s private torment feels like yet another bauble of precious Southern-belle neuroses.

Lonergan’s unadorned style relies more on scalpel-sharp edits that wryly undercut his characters’ pretensions. Take Sammy and Brian’s agreement to forge a more professional working relationship before a cut moves immediately to the two of them post coitus in a mediocre motel; or Terry’s sheepish apology to Rory after groundlessly accusing him of telling Sammy about their bar excursion that ends almost immediately after Rory defensively insists he “doesn’t care.” One might assume that such pointed editing patterns would create a distance between filmmaker and subject, but Lonergan and editor Anne McCabe don’t push the characters away so much as drain their circumstances of sentimentality through crisp pacing.

Like so many family films, Crimes of the Heart and You Can Count on Me can both be considered “actors’ showcases.” Indeed, if there is a quality in Crimes of the Heart that I most enjoyed, it’s the performances of Keaton, Lange, and Spacek. Unapologetically boisterous affairs, they come chock full of spirited rows and tearful recollections, all sweetened by the actresses’ honeyed Southern accents. Certainly, their easy on-screen chemistry evokes less the invisible bonds of siblinghood than the unspoken pleasures of talented thespians licking their lips over three juicy roles. And why not admire the way Lange’s mascara-smeared Meg takes a luxurious drag off her cigarette, or the spaced-out concentration that Spacek’s Babe puts into making extra-sweet lemonade? The point is to notice. You Can Count on Me certainly offers the similar pleasures of seeing two gifted performers burrow into their characters’ quirks and mannerisms. The crucial difference lies in how Linney and Ruffalo also conjure a private world of gestures, glances, and conversational patterns that imply an entire history without dialogue explicitly exhuming its every detail. Throughout, their conversations seesaw between recrimination and repentance with a familiarity that echoes the hundreds of similar encounters played out over the years, while also suggesting a playful ability to still surprise one another, if only for a moment.

Crimes of the Heart ends on a note of raucous sisterly bonding. Blowing out the candles on her belated birthday cake, Lenny offers a wish for their continued togetherness and happiness and all three siblings dig in, laughing all the while. The frame literally transforms into a still photograph that floats into the pages of Babe’s scrapbook, capturing a moment of emotional harmony warm enough to thaw lingering tensions and dashed hopes. Mainstream film offers such possibility, and the appeal is undeniable. The parting moments between Terry and Sammy offer little such comfort: some desperate tears and rushed words of advice from sister to brother; the vague promise of a Christmas reunion; the specter of continuing distance and its accompanying emotional estrangement. Yet when Terry reaches back into their collective memory bank and beseeches Sammy to remember the comforting words they used to say to another—perhaps revealed in the film’s title, but never spoken by either sibling—it evokes the powerful, silent bonds of personal history with a piercing clarity that’s hard to express.

I cannot claim that such a moment derives its purity of emotion from some amorphous “indie” spirit, or that the complicated web of economic calculations and cultural expectations that go into crafting “small” films offers a foolproof method of artistic success. All I know is that it never fails to make me weep. That a movie took the time to capture something so delicate and complex about so fundamental a subject offers the fragile hope that American independent cinema (however one defines and describes it) can still get it right—every now and again.