January seems notorious for these types of films, earning a place among cinema’s dump months Anesthesia doesn’t seem to be rectifying the trend. “Dump” refers to the increased output of disposable entertainment – a film with no huge commercial or critical expectation – making this a truly depressing month for the rest of us. This year, the honor of the notorious January release date goes to The Forest and Ride Along 2; however, I was more compelled to see an indie drama called Anesthesia, which is directed, written and starring Tim Blake Nelson. But please don’t let the word “indie” exempt it from the same detritus as its big screen counterparts, Anesthesia is no less badly written, derivative or lazy as its previous dump month counterparts – the only difference here is that Anesthesia is a mess one is more inclined to clean and up and attempt to piece it back together.
Tim Blake Nelson, a fine naturalistic actor, feels completely out of touch as an ambitious filmmaker. Anesthesia plays on numerous different narrative strands, think Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Todd Solondz’s Happiness – inheriting those film’s miserablism without their biting social commentary or narrative prowess. The film follows the lives of its characters as they attempt to operate within various social layouts – intertwined through vague philosophical foundations and sometimes even brief encounters with one another.
It’s hard deciding where to begin when talking about films lke these. There are moments where it seems clear that Nelson is attempting to emulate Magnolia with his use of follow shots, all of which lack the dense perspective of Anderson and his visual magnitude. The film’s script has the habit of disproportionately balancing between subdued realism and deadpan witticisms, but the worst of the bunch come in subtler forms. His dialogue is perhaps the most bafflingly inane, ranging from the awkward phrasing (“utterly heinous”) to a poor, deeply cringey attempt to mimic angsty teen vernacular (“Ray is a prick and a narc”).
Still, none of these really reach the level of obnoxiousness of the pseudo-intellectual prattling of its central characters, a university professor (Sam Waterston) and even worse by his student (Kristen Stewart), whose segments seem less like two individuals conversing than Tim Blake Nelson’s misanthropic centerpiece for his film. Kristen Stewart, who was great in Clouds of Sils Maria, seems completely out of her comfort zone in this, going from her understated turmoil in that film to an overstated unstable, quivering hot mess in this one. From the opening scene where the film milks her character’s self-pity by pointlessly confronting strangers as a way to indulge her own dissatisfaction with the world.
As a way to add validity to the film’s structurally complex narrative, the film will attempt to philosophically pull the strands of this film together and bind them under a single thesis. But nothing is said or expressed in this film that truly binds these only superficially intertwining narrative strands. Sam Waterston’s world-weary professor’s rhetoric on God being replaced by technology only bears a dramatic importance on one story (his and Kristen Stewart’s), yet it’s clear Tim Blake Nelson intended for it to resonate across the film’s numerous strands.
Unfortunately, by the end of the film, the film’s entire point seems to left in the air. Anesthesia is, in the end, just plainly incoherent. Its stories are too loosely spaced apart and its philosophy painfully abstract and interchangeable. The process of piecing together the separate narrative threads in Anesthesia requires the viewer to crudely generalize each of Nelson’s little stories into neat little thematic frames – it ultimately bears little of the miraculous thematic synthesis that brought the characters in Magnolia and Happiness together). This film, not entirely without gusto, ends up badly topicalized. Tim Blake Nelson seems to reach false conclusions about the state of humanity on the brink atop thin – sometimes non-existent – premises.