The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Put Raw, Riveting 'The Mend' On Your Must-See List

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 10, 2015 9:00PM

Josh Lucas in “The Mend.” (Photo: © CINELICIOUSPICS)

Buzzing with tension, anger and often weirdly-funny energy, The Mend is a confident, stylistically exciting film sure to rub many people the wrong way. For those willing to take the leap into the abrasive world of its deliberately antagonistic characters, however, this is something pretty damn special.

Even as it thematically echoes the male ego-driven misanthropy of John Cassavetes' Husbands (1970) and Mike Leigh's Naked (1993), John Magary's first feature-length movie as a writer-director shows its own distinctive visual style and rhythms. An expressive use of color and lighting, slowly creeping zoom shots and offbeat touches like silent film-styled iris effects all add up to a welcome antidote to the detached, drab and frankly lazy aesthetics of many recent low-budget independent movies.

More a series of connected character profiles than a fully-formed narrative, the story concerns the combative relationship between brothers Mat (Josh Lucas) and Alan (Stephen Plunkett). At first it appears Mat is the problem. Unruly, seemingly unemployable and downright unhygienic, he seems like he's devoted his adult life to letting his pissed-off inner child run amok. Alan, on the other hand, comes across as his tightly-wound, passive-aggressive counterpart ... determined to exercise all the control that Mat has abandoned.

That's how it seems early on, especially in a magnetic extended scene where Mat unexpectedly shows up on Alan's couch as he and his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) throw a party. Mat is ready to stir up some shit with his brother's cultured pals. But as the party goes on and Farrah challenges Alan on multiple levels, it becomes evident neither brother feels very much at home here.

Alan takes a short trip with plans to propose to Farrah, leaving Mat still crashing at his pad. By the time he returns, the apartment has been transformed into a den of sloth, with Mat's on-again-off-again girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen) squatting there as well. Alan—reeling from an unexpected split with Farrah—simply wallows in the dysfunction. The longer Mat stays, the more the brothers seem to mirror each other. Troubled relations with their parents are mentioned, though never really detailed, while the siblings' resentments towards one another also become more pronounced.

'The Mend' (Photo: © CINELICIOUSPICS)

If this all sounds terribly anguished, it kind of is ... and kind of isn't. Disputes that seem sure to devolve into violence often do not. And even when they do, the violence is often more absurd than threatening. While the brothers' relationship doesn't exactly move to the mending the title suggests, they do bond over their general unhappiness and social instability. These are not well men, but they know it. And sometimes they celebrate it in pretty hilarious fashion.

As the odd currents of humor collide with the personal turmoil, the movie also becomes increasingly grimy. Blood, piss and vomit become more prominent, but this isn't a gross-out comedy. Bodily fluids accentuate the chaos and twisted laughs, as does a power outage no one seems the slightest bit prepared to deal with.

Like Husbands and Naked, The Mend puts viewers in the company of some often unlikable characters. The male-female relationships are also equally brittle as in those films, though less fueled by misogyny on the part of the men or deference on the part of the women. Farrah proves a fascinating character and we're left wondering if she is picking away at Alan's weaknesses out of malice or resentment, or simply because she knows it's exactly what he needs. Sumner, also seen currently in The End of the Tour, gives the character a decidedly trouble-making edge.

Owens' Andrea, who puts her young child in the path of the explosive Mat, is a more traditional co-dependent type, but her free-spirited ways and obvious affection for Alan help bring things to a boil. Also adding layers to the murky emotional waters is stage and screen veteran (and Steppenwolf ensemble member) Austin Pendleton as an old friend of the family who shares an inappropriate tale of sexual conquest involving the brothers' clearly not-model father.

Lucas, who has flirted with mainstream fame for years in movies like Sweet Home Alabama, Glory Road and Poseidon (greater celebrity perhaps denied due to his resemblance to Matthew McConaughey), is terrific here. He brings movie star presence to a sometimes repellant figure—always a fun combination. Plunkett at first defers to his charisma, fitting the pent-up state of his character, but when he finally lets loose, he gives Lucas a run for his money in the volatility department.

Those looking for a clear and easy statement or moral in The Mend, or a fuller explanation or justification for the unstable behavior on display, may find the movie frustrating. Magary is intent on keeping things untidy—both figuratively and literally—and the result is audacious and electrifying.

The Mend. Written and directed by John Magary. Starring Josh Lucas, Stephen Plunkett, Mickey Sumner and Lucy Owens. 111 mins. No MPAA rating.

Opens Friday, Sept. 11 at Facets Cinémathèque.