By Jeremy Carr.
There is so much potential tragedy in the first twenty minutes of Diane that the film appears instantly in danger of over-stressing the point of its dramatic tension. This subdued, 2018 release, the debut narrative feature from Kent Jones – director of the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), director of the New York Film Festival, and frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator (Scorsese was Diane’s executive producer) – is a poignant meditation on death, anguish, and aging, almost relentlessly so. Though not obvious at the time, it soon becomes clear why Mary Kay Place’s eponymous heroine is first seen asleep, having dozed off while visiting her sick cousin in the hospital: this woman is simply exhausted.
It’s no wonder. Diane leads a busy life, constantly meeting with family and friends, swapping meals and accidentally keeping casserole dish containers, volunteering at the local soup kitchen, visiting cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), who is dying of cervical cancer, and, most taxing of all, tending to her 30-something son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who is afflicted by drug addiction. In a progression of episodic routines, Diane’s considerate heroine advances through her middle-class milieu under a consuming cloud of utter selflessness. Partly inspired by her grieving turn in 1997’s The Rainmaker, Jones wrote the part of Diane with Place specifically in mind: “She had a soulful quality,” he said. And it was a shrewd choice, for Place also has an artless capacity for empathy and inhibited sorrow. Her appearance doesn’t suggest the typically withered, aged, and insulated widow (though she appears desperately fatigued throughout Diane, it was surprising to discover Place is 71-years-old), but rather the sincere, natural maturation of a mother and a friend who has been put through life’s physical and emotional wringer and has the lines to show for it.
Diane knows everybody and everybody knows her, and she knows enough people to know that almost everyone is linked by someone else who is injured, ailing, recovering from a surgery, or is consistently unemployed. On that last note, though, Diane herself is curiously never shown at work and no mention is made of how she affords to do her assorted good deeds. It’s an omission that slightly undercuts the downtrodden impression of her perpetual hardship. All the same, she scarcely has time for herself, and for most of the film’s early moments, Diane is seldom seen alone or at peace. Only later, at a bar, is she finally provided a brief reprieve. In one of Place’s more genuine revelations (among several), she plays a favorite song on the jukebox, sings along, dances a bit, and downs one-too-many margaritas. It’s a temporarily satisfying solo release before despair returns, pulls ahead, and surpasses the fleeting good time.
Otherwise, Diane is surrounded by wide circle of relations, enacted by an exceptionally strong supporting cast. This includes Donna, forcefully and resiliently played by O’Connell in her character’s dying days, and Bobbie (Andrea Martin), Diane’s best friend, who is always willing to lend a reminiscent, sympathetic ear. Lacy is particularly compelling as Diane’s trouble son, a young man whose life is obviously a mess whether he sees it or not. His relationship with Diane is a complicated one. They have recurring spats that nevertheless end with him blowing her a half-hearted kiss, and she regularly delivers clean laundry and bags full of groceries to his unwelcoming home. Brain’s part of the story takes a semi-redemptive turn after he finds a wife at an AA meeting and, in the process, finds religion. Prone to overdoing whatever the drug, however, he takes it too far. While Diane is also religious, evinced by the cross hung above her bed, too much is too much; as one friend describes Brian’s spouse, their “whole family’s a bunch of Bible-thumpers from way back.” If not exactly mocking, Diane gently scorns Brian’s newfound high and mighty ways, more concerned as the film is with immediate salvation and practical atonement.
Diane took top honors at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where Jones was awarded for Best Narrative Feature and Best Screenplay (as good as Place is, she lost to Alia Shawkat in Miguel Arteta’s Duck Butter). Also recognized was the cinematography of Wyatt Garfield, which neatly conveys the muted, wintery desolation of the film’s New England setting (actually, an equally low-key upstate New York). This is especially apparent in repeated scenes of Diane driving from place to place, in a series of tranquil narrative bridges shot from her point of view, evoking an interminable passage of time and a profound emptiness. Diane is a somewhat hardened film about perspective, about weighing the good and the bad, the necessary and the hopeless, and the consequence of one condition over another (Donna, for instance, discounts Brian’s drug use, arguing that while she’s not getting out of bed anytime soon, if ever, he can walk away whenever he likes).
Filmed in just twenty days, Diane’s most notable feature, even beyond Place’s performance, is its atmospheric and scenic authenticity (notwithstanding an oddly misplaced dream sequence and an obligatory arty ending). Jones, who grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, has a keen eye for the melancholy and the inexorable banality of everyday rural life, and for the people and places that define such an existence. One sees it in details like cracked, weather-worn walls and local advertisements printed on restaurant placemats; in the way someone rushes for a buffet’s last slice of pie and how annoyed people are by “robocalls”; in idle chitchat and pervasive gossip; and in the cold medical protocol of patients giving nurses numbers to indicate their pain level and uncertain visitors telling a sick person their “color is good.” Throughout his film, Jones strikes a tender, somber, and realistic chord, one that may seem most relevant to those of a certain age, a consignment primarily given to the “Boomer Generation.” But Diane is broader than that. It is instead applicable to anyone with friends and family and to anyone who accepts the fact that life itself is terminal.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.