I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I’ve said it, ‘I can be saved.’ I hope it’s human nature, why so many of us turn to religion, that need to be redeemed. That’s like the Christian thing isn’t it? Low effort absolution, I’d write it off if i hadn’t tried for most of my life and found it so so hard. Eventually I decided that a God who would reveal themselves to just about everyone I knew but me wasn’t worth a stake of my time.
That probably makes me a bad believer, it also feels like the realm that this film is operating in. It’s aggressively anti-saviour, white saviour, class saviour, child saviour, saviour innocent. It sets up these archetypes only to say that you want saving, you gotta save yourself — and ends on a note of the two leads sharing a moment of unity in the personal purgatories that they’ve found themselves caught in.
It’s why the film has the man be a civics teacher, has these long scenes of him preaching how change occurs, he’s a student of dialectics trying to teach kids that change is brought on by the friction between opposing ideologies before they synthesise. Maybe it’s what leads him towards becoming a mentor type figure to this young black girl, the hope that encountering his mirror will lead to some sort of ascension.
Maybe he’s just hoping, it can’t be conscious, probably not anyway. He’s just grasping at whatever he can take and this girl found him legless in the school bathroom. What really matters is that he’s unable to put in the work. We get these intercut monologues throughout, the kids in his class explaining the history of the civil rights movement, drilling home the concept that things we take for granted were a result of a constant struggle.
Gosling’s character seems unable to do so. He’s too far gone, or at least sees himself in that way. He floats through his life bemused at the very things that he’s taking part in. Even when he sexually assaults a coworker whose house he barged into in the middle of the night, all he can say is that it, ‘was weird for me.’
The crux of the movie for me is when he goes to visit his family and you get to witness him caught among them, completely alienated and alone. His addiction is the reason for a lot of how he lives, you sense it wouldn’t be so bad if he felt loved.
When you’re broken beyond repair, you turn your sights outward, massage your ruined self-esteem by fixing others. When you’re fucked everyone else’s shit seems so simple, but he can’t even manage that with Epps’ character. She needs to feel loved too and he knows he can’t be that for her, and she goes to a place where she’s going to get it.
We’re all just trying to feel good in the short term.
Honestly this one didn’t catch me all too hard. I get that it was going for like a subversion of these dramatic tropes, but a lot of it is played straight down the line, as if to make sure you’re getting it, and as a result it feels almost like the least interesting version of this that it could be.
They make him a watercolour artist, and he has a record collection, and he’s played by Ryan Gosling. For a film about being strung out it feels awful clean.
Half Nelson is currently available to stream in the UK via Mubi.
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