The Savages: coming to terms with death and family

New to DVD is The Savages, writer/director Tamara Jenkins‘ first new feature since 1998’s excellent The Slums of Beverly Hills. Jenkins’ unflinchingly honest script offers the film’s two leads—the always-terrific Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman—a chance to give rich, nuanced performances while exploring emotional and thematic territory rarely given serious consideration on screen. In The Savages, Linney and Hoffman play a brother and sister, Wendy and John, who have to take responsibility for the welfare of their elderly father (who is suffering from dementia) after his longtime girlfriend passes away. Both siblings have long been estranged from their father—he abused them when they were children, and there’s clearly little love lost between them. Still, they feel a responsibility and an obligation to take care of him, and the bulk of the film centers on their struggles to do right by him while also holding their own lives together.

As my girlfriend pointed out to me, the characters’ names, Wendy and Jon, are a probable allusion to Peter Pan‘s John and Wendy Darling. This strikes me as fitting in at least two respects. For one, both Savage siblings seem to be struggling to hold onto their youth: though Wendy is in her late thirties, and Jon in his early forties, both are still struggling to establish themselves in their chosen fields, and both also seem determined to avoid entering (or remaining in) relationships requiring permanent commitment and full adult intimacy. Also, having to take care of their father has returned the Savages to childhood, in a way: they’ve been forced to be their father’s children again, and to be reminded of everything about their childhood that they’ve been trying to escape throughout their adult lives.

One of the great strengths of Jenkins’ writing here is that she avoids excessive psychologizing: the point of the film is not to reveal the ways in which Wendy and Jon’s father’s behavior has shaped their personalities and choices. Rather, this is a given in the film: Jenkins assumes that this is the case (and we see it again and again in small ways in the behavior of the characters), because it’s always the case in any family—but she doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, she uses this fact as a base to explore questions of what it means to be a parent and a child, and to peer unblinkingly into the terror of illness, decline, and death. The Savage siblings do the best they can, but all the same they’re essentially helpless with respect to their father; there’s no cure for what he’s suffering, and it’s a stark fact that the best they can hope for is to offer him some comfort during his last days. Meanwhile, they’re also forced to face the fact that they are aging themselves—that they’re not exactly young anymore, and cannot deny the reality of death.

It’s much to Jenkins’ credit that she entirely avoids sentimentality here: nothing is sugarcoated, and she doesn’t take the easy way out by giving us some improbable scene in which the old man repents of his ways and reconciles with his forgiving children. They don’t forgive him, and even if he might have felt some urge to apologize to them for what he’d done, he’s in no condition to do so: most of the time, he has only the vaguest of ideas about where he is or what’s happening. The film faces the facts of illness, death, and abuse with a matter-of-fact honesty, and doesn’t pretend that there’s anything especially good about any of it. This sometimes makes for difficult, emotionally intense viewing—but every moment of it rings true, and you’re at least left with the consolation of knowing that everyone is bound to be lost in fear, confusion, and pain when facing illness and death in the family.

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