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You Can Count on Me (2000)
Can Count On Me is
a work of surprising depth that uses a rather spare but still elegant palette,
straightforward scenes and often minimal dialog to stand in stark contrast to the powerful
conflicts and emotions it portrays. It's an
impressive film with several first-rate performances.
The story covers a few days in the lives of two siblings with a cruel past their parents were killed in a car wreck nearly twenty years ago and wildly different presents. Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney, The Truman Show) is going through the motions, both at work and in her relationships with men. She lives in her parent's house in a sleepy hamlet in upstate New York and works as a loan officer at a small bank. Her husband ran off long ago, leaving her and son Rudy (Rory Culkin), who's now eight. Her younger brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) is a classic grown adolescent with permanent potential, charming but irresponsible. He picks up a paycheck for the odd construction job in Alaska or Florida when not drifting along and getting into various scrapes.with the law. When Terry writes that he's coming home, Sammy's thrilled - both at the prospect of seeing him and of having someone to perform some serious male bonding with Rudy. But then she learns that Terry's visit is a temporary stopover, he just needs to borrow some money to "take care of a situation" involving his pregnant girlfriend.
Over the course of the film Sammy and Terry's arcs move in an interesting zero-sum counterpoint. Due to his exposure to Rudy and seeing how the boy admires him, Terry grudgingly becomes more responsible. Meanwhile, Sammy takes advantage of Terry's presence and caregiving of Rudy to experimentally rekindle some of the wildness of her youth, eventually having an ill-advised affair with her anal-retentive bank manager boss (Matthew Broderick). Soon the siblings are back into a familiar pattern of petty arguments and power struggles.
Screenwriter Ken Lonergan also wrote the scripts for the rather broad comedies Analyze This and Rocky and Bullwinkle, so it's a very pleasant surprise that this, his first directorial effort, is fashioned with such remarkable economy and restraint. Lonergan could easily have allowed his story to become maudlin, overwhelmed with overwrought emotional speeches. Instead, in many scenes his characters react to each other in the manner of most uncomfortable people under stress in guarded silence, body language speaking for them. It's an authentic and sometimes brutal portrayal of family and sibling dynamics that never relies on unrealistic displays of emotion to manipulate the audience.
A script with such an absence of histrionics requires actors who can work effectively without relying on scenery chewing, and the cast here is admirable. Linney's Sammy is a furtive bundle of anticipation, her face constantly registering the toll of regretting the road not taken. As Terry, Mark Ruffalo is dark and smoldering, on arriving in town his weary shrug of a duffle bag says more than pages of dialog. Eventually Terry evolves to embody his earlier protest that "I'm not the kind of guy that everyone says I am." Both performances are Oscar-caliber. Rory Culkin manages to be wise and sensitive without being anywhere near as insufferable as his older brother Macaulay. Matthew Broderick serves notice that he's indeed an adult now, but his character here is a bit too close to his work in Election to draw much distinction. Lonergan himself even turns in a small but effective appearance as the somewhat New-Age priest to whom Sammy turns for counsel.
By its end, You Can Count On Me has revealed characters that have changed but not necessarily healed. There are no pat answers here, no neatly resolved endings, no larger moral truths or inspiring messages - just authentic people whose lives we've been invited to share for a while. Given all the sturm und drang that's often used to little effect, it's heartening to see a film that recognizes the power and value of quiet reflection.
- Bob Aulert