Sometimes you eat an entire damn pie

Of all of the emotions that film makers attempt to portray on screen, grief may be the most difficult to get right.

Actors tend to swing for the fences, giving outsize, bravura performances which can, to be honest, be marvelously effective. Think of Sean Penn’s wailing in Mystic River. He screams from the soles of his feet and it is difficult not to be moved by it. Yet, it isn’t real. It may work perfectly in the moment, sitting in the dark with the big screen before you, already roped in by the action and the character work that led up to the moment, but in the cold light as you exit the theater you’re forced to admit that for however moved you were at the time, something about the giant work of ACTING rings false.

One might also think of Juliane Moore in Magnolia. Her breakdown scene is a thing of real beauty. She mixes agony and fear into a manic fog. Her voice breaks, she giggles and growls. Any normal person should be on the verge of tears along with her, and yet . . . it just isn’t real.

Writers, directors, and actors struggle to find a way to put real grief on screen. In recent years I have seen one real, perfect, depiction of grief in a movie.  It is in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story.  In the film C, played by Casey Affleck, has died. His wife M, played by Rooney Mara, is left to contend with the loss and with how to continue living on her own.

We see the normal, expected activity that follows a death and feel like we understand what the film intends. Then, we get something different. M is alone at night. She wanders aimlessly into the kitchen. There, among the food that always comes in waves following a death (this is strangest ritual, yet the one that makes the most sense – the bereaved may be unable to cook for themselves, afterall) she finds a pie. What happens then is wondrous:

She eats it.

The entire fucking pie.

We watch her eat an entire pie while sitting on the floor of her kitchen. It plays in real time. She eats until her body rebels and she runs to the toilet to vomit.

Watching this scene play out I was shocked. What I saw was real. It was nakedly human.  The business of being alive is dirty, and ugly, and strange. Often it hurts. Sometimes it hurts so much that we can barely breathe.  Even worse, sometimes it stops hurting and we are left with nothing. Just the blind, rotting void of existence.  And when that happens we strive for feeling. People cut themselves, or put out cigarettes on their own arms just to feel pain because pain is better than feeling nothing. 

And sometimes they weep while eating an entire damned pie.

Ms. Mara is perfect in this moment.  She embodies loss in a way that I had assumed was unfilmable. I was wrong. Sean Penn aint got nothing on her.

- Nathan Tyree