paint_it_black_2Year: 2016
Director(s): Amber Tamblyn
Writer(s): Ed Dougherty, Amber Tamblyn, Janet Fitch
Region of Origin: US
Rating: Unrated
Color, 96 mins

Synopsis: Two women collide and repel over the death of a man they both loved.

Paint It Black is a different kind of ghost story, not one about phantoms or ghouls but the fading memories we can’t and refuse to let go of. Everyone is intimately familiar with these kinds of ghosts, whether it’s the dreams and aspirations that don’t line up with reality, the part of us that dies when we lose someone close, or the legacy of a loved one that stays with us long after they’re gone. Adapting Janet Fitch’s prose, Amber Tamblyn’s directorial debut is a swirling, constantly evolving sensory experience that explores the way we process grief and loss, as well as how the ideas of someone we know may not necessarily line up with who they actually were. This is a film of extremes, both the good and bad that life throws at us, lead by a career-defining role from star Alia Shawkat, anchoring what’s undoubtedly one of the year’s most cathartic, soulful films. 

After her boyfriend Michael (Rhys Wakefield) commits suicide, Josie’s (Alia Shawkat) life is turned completely upside down. She has barely any time to grieve, however, before she finds herself stalked by Michael’s well-to-do mother Meredith (Janet McTeer), who blames her for her son’s death. Minor spats quickly escalate, and the two engage in an increasingly violent and psychological chess game in which they try to hurt each other and themselves no matter the cost. The further their twisted game continues, the more these two find a common middle ground in their grief, resulting in an unlikely, tenuous bond that doesn’t quite go the way you’d expect. 

Brimming with Lynchian atmosphere, Tamblyn’s film unfolds through a visceral, neon drenched fever dream of visual and narrative poetry. It doesn’t hold back, as Tamblyn proves herself adept at translating introspective, inner struggle through outward physical manifestation and lyrical juxtaposition. It’s impossible to not feel moved, as a torrent of fleeting memories and feelings are stitched together by unexpected moments of humor, an incredible soundtrack and inventive, cerebral editing, reminiscent of Bergman himself. All of it serves a very fascinating, acidic relationship, one in which the disparate worlds of two women collide, converge and repel through pain and tragedy. As they reminisce about their own experiences and feelings about the man they lost (each loving him in their own singular way), a bigger picture emerges about the complexity of these women and how their consuming grief shapes and transforms them in wildly different ways. The film eventually dovetails into the ephemeral nature of our existence, the necessity of cutting ties, moving forward and how its okay for pain and hope to coexist and work in tandem. To say that the film is dense, is putting it lightly, and yet its emotional authenticity is utterly hypnotic and something we never want to look away from.

paint_it_black_1On opposite sides of the same coin, Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer deliver sharply contrasting performances that immerse us into the film’s deep ideas of death and life. As soon as we meet Shawkat’s Josie, she’s already rocked by the film’s dark revelation. It’s a testament to her that through numerous flashbacks and quiet introspection, we’re able to piece together a layered human being, tracking the depth of her sorrow and happiness without the need of a voiceover. She’s always proved a strong supporting character, but this is the role that proves she’s a star, sometimes finding humanity in understated humor and plunging to the depths of sadness sometimes at the flick of a switch. As Meredith, McTeer presents an older woman who is noticeably stunted by a past life that never was. Pain and heartache hangs on her every word and a stray grimace or scowl from her is defeating. Betraying her upper-class stature with open fragility, her performance has the opportunity to devolve into caricature but never does. Together, these women tread a fine line, both existing in a heightened sense of reality yet never feeling less than real. 

It’s insane to think that Paint It Black is Tamblyn’s first film as a director, giving us literary depth in a brisk, stylish blast of energy. Technically and narratively ambitious, the film embodies hate, fear, isolation and longing, but also hope and love, showing how all of these things need each other even if the bad sometimes threatens to overshadow the good. There’s a lot to parse through on a single viewing of the film, but it’s a tremendous tribute to life’s most mystifying ideas – I already can’t wait to experience it again.