Published at: March 26, 2007, 5:58 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Mike Binder’s an interesting filmmaker.
As far as I can tell, he’s not chasing any trends. He’s not trying to make the next giantsupermegablockbuster. He’s just a guy who seems to be honing a personal voice, film after film, getting better as he does. He’s never become a hipster fave like Wes Anderson or PTA, and he’s never achieved the pop culture significance of Woody Allen in the early days. But he manages to keep getting funding and he manages to keep making fairly personal films the way he wants to.
I admire that.
And, in a happy coincidence, I also like his movies.
REIGN OVER ME is probably the biggest release he’s ever had. Before this, his highest profile films were THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, and his HBO series MIND OF THE MARRIED MAN benefited greatly from its airtime.
But this time out, Binder’s working with a bonafide giant movie star, Adam Sandler, and one of the best actors he’s ever directed, Don Cheadle, and the result is a film that I found very moving in places, a film that’s rich with character and quirk but that never feels forced. In fact, one of the things I like most about it is the way it just sort of takes its time and unfolds without feeling like a standard three-act structure with everything carefully laid out according to some Robert McKee idea of the way things must be. REIGN OVER ME plays sort of messy, with a number of different tones depending on the scene, and that collision of things is what makes it work for me.
It takes real balls to bring 9/11 into a fictional film as a dramatic device right now. Sure, we’ve seen things like UNITED 93 and WORLD TRADE CENTER last year, but both of those were very careful to try and pin their stories to “actual events,” however loosely. With REIGN OVER ME, Binder dares to create a fictional character and tie him into the events, and it works because the magnitude of that event explains the almost autistic retreat from grief that Charlie (Sandler) makes in his life. And it’s instantly understandable for any of us right now because it’s still such a fresh wound for us. I like that Binder doesn’t dwell on it by showing us endless shots of Ground Zero, and he doesn’t make it political at all. This is simply a film about how you are supposed to pick yourself up and dust yourself off after being devastated.
It’s strange that Binder and Sandler both started as stand-up comedians, but in a way, it makes sense. Yes, this is a film about grief and loss, but it’s also a film that contains a lot of sly laughs. Finding humor and warmth in the middle of such a raw nerve of a movie isn’t easy, and Binder doesn’t force it. I like how the film gradually builds the rapport between Charlie and Alan (Cheadle), his college roommate who he really hasn’t seen since. Their reunion is an accident, a casual encounter on the street that leads to a rekindling of their friendship. Considering Charlie never sees his old friends and rarely socializes with anyone, it’s a minor miracle that he’s willing to open up and let Alan get close to him. Part of it is because he’s reaching out to his past and part of it is because Alan wasn’t part of the period in his life where he had a family. It’s almost like Alan offers him a chance to simply edit that part of his life out completely.
There are a lot of great textural details in the film, whether it’s the videogame that Charlie is obsessed with (SHADOWS OF THE COLOSSUS, if you’re familiar with it) and the way it focuses on loss and the repeated collapse of giant creatures like towers, or the music that Charlie loses himself in, including The Who’s QUADROPHENIA, which is where the film gets its title. Watching the relationship between the two of them unfold, you keep waiting for the typical Hollywood fireworks to kick in, but they never do. Instead, Charlie remains unpredictable and frustrating and sort of broken, and Alan never has any giant ephiphany of his own. There are small moments of growth and change instead, which seems much more realistic, and because of that, the film ends up being much more affecting. My wife and I were both taken aback at how powerful Sandler is in his few moments of release, and I wish more directors would reach out to him and really take advantage of this persona he’s developed. So far, only Paul Thomas Anderson and Binder have really figured out how to do that. James L. Brooks tried, but he never cracked the script, and so Sandler ended up stranded, doing decent work but without any focus.
It's not just Sandler who does nice work here, of course. If Cheadle wasn't able to hold up his end of the duet, it wouldn't work. Cheadle has a lot to do here, playing a lot of levels, and I loved the stuff he played with Saffron Burrows in particular. I've never really loved her on film, but she connects in her small role. Same with Jada Pinkett Smith. Binder always gets good work out of his actors, and I like that he plays a small role here as well, and that he doesn't play it for laughs.
REIGN OVER ME is probably the most accomplished film that Binder’s made so far in terms of cinematography and polish, and it makes great use of New York as a character. Another reason 9/11 makes sense in this film as a device is because New York itself has had to rebound just like Charlie, and if the city’s been able to do it, then there’s hope for the people that make up that city to do the same. What ultimately makes this film work, and what makes it stick, is the way it offers up that hope as more than just a band-aid or a pithy gesture. It shows hope as a process, as something you work at, as something you have to fight for. And, more importantly, something that is as crucial to our survival as food or drink or even air.
Here’s hoping Binder’s next time at bat yields the same sort of results. He continues to impress, and I hope audiences find this film and give it a chance.
I know I’ve been slow on the draw on these reviews this weekend, but real life intrudes sometimes. I’ve still got a SHOOTER review to put up sometime today, and then I’ll get to GRINDHOUSE as well as some DVD content for the rest of the week.