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 truky 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 dont 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 more unpredictable mess, observable like watching a waiter carry a freshly cooked meal to your table, only to drop it at the last second.
Tim Blake Nelson, a fine actor, credited at least one decently made film, feels completely out of touch with his ambition. Anesthesia is an anthology, so think Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Todd Solondz’s Happiness without the biting social commentary or narrative prowess of either. It follows people whose lives are depicted through various social layouts, intertwined through vague philosophical foundations and sometimes even brief encounters.
It’s hard deciding where to begin. 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 storytelling ability. 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 baffling of the film’s substandard qualities, ranging from the awkward, cringe-inducing scene of a Middle American housewife phrasing “utterly heinous” to a deviant teen’s stilted delivery of “Ray is a prick and a narc”.
Still, none of these match 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 Nelson espousing a singular bleak narrative upon the Information Age. Kristen Stewart, who was great in Clouds of Sils Maria, seems completely out of her element in this film. From the opening scene where the film milks her character’s self-pity by confronting strangers and bystanders as a way to straw-man the world’s hostility, or to indulge her own dissatisfaction with the world:
“Everyone is plugged in, blindingly inarticulate, obsessed with money, their careers. Stupidly, arrogantly content. I can’t talk to them, I fight them, I want to destroy them even. I crave interaction, I crave it. But you just can’t anymore. They pull their devices out for every little thing. To reinforce their petty, convenient notions, to decide where they’re gonna shop, what they’re gonna eat, what movies they’re going to watch. Everything they ingest.”
The movie isn’t nearly as intelligent as it thinks it is. If you can sit through it without tearing your hair out, the philosophical undertones are sometimes emphasized by the philosophic readings underscoring seemingly related moments. This was probably done as a way to add validity to the film’s structural narrative. However, just by simply deducing the professor’s deceptively intricate words, there’s really nothing truly brilliant being said here, or more importantly, nothing that truly binds the intertwining narratives together. His rhetoric on God being replaced by superseding opiates like technology and how our reliance on said technology makes us lonelier may be relevant to the narrative of the disparate student, but not to the that of adulterous spouse, the mentally ill vagabond or the terminally ill housewife.
There’s probably an important point to be made here, you’re just not going to find it any where in the film. The end result of Anesthesia: it’s a plainly incoherent anthology film. It’s stories are too loosely spaced apart, its philosophies are abstract and interchangeable and its Computer Age pessimism feel like the ramblings of a senile curmudgeon. This film is the cinematic equivalent of a poorly written thesis paper, not entirely without gusto, but badly researched and topicalized (a last minute effort), reaching false conclusions on thin – sometimes non-existent – premises.