There isn't a more expressive way to start a movie than by introducing a faceless character in complete darkness. Not only does this accurately show the dark tone that underlies the film, but this also gives the audience a chance to identify with and characterize the actor's mental state. As I first stated, this is a pretty bold way to start off a movie, and in doing so Doug (James Gandolfini) is shown as a melancholic middle-class husband always needing to get away from the haunting present that so deeply has affected his family. Running away to his Thursday poker nights and affair with a waitress, Vivian, at a diner only makes things worse for the two Rileys.
As we are constantly reminded, Doug "the waffle man" and Lois "like the Superman" Riley will have been married 30 years this June. But remember, it's quality not quantity. There is always distance between the couple, caused by the death of their daughter 8 years ago. I was definitely intrigued by the introduction of this loss because it was subtle and not approached like Rabbit Hole, for example, where the audience watches the couple deal with the grief and loss of their loved one. No flashback to the incident. No pictures or shots of their daughter. Instead, the audience only partially sees the inside of the daughter's room and when Doug visits Vivian's grave due to a heart attack, we also visit Emily's grave and officially discover that she died when she was 15 years old. Ironically, he sees a gravestone for himself and his wife there, too! This only thrusts him into a impassionate fight with his wife, blaming her for the things that have come to fruition between them (the death of their daughter included...).
Another part I found really interesting and well done in the movie is Lois's (Melissa Leo) transformation from a distraught, unaffected "widow mother" to a much more content and lively wife. Lois literally hasn't left her house for 8 years. I haven't had to cope with such a close loss before, but it must be extremely heartbreaking because I cannot even begin to understand leaving one's house for 8 years. When Doug leaves for a convention in New Orleans, there is a shot of Lois through the kitchen window as she regretfully and sadly watches him leave. She regrets not being able to leave her own home. She regrets what her life has become. She wants to be closer to her husband, but they have never put forth an effort to work on their weaknesses. And as she looks out that window, I realize the window is there for a purpose. It acts not only as a physical, but also an emotional and mental barrier for Lois from the outside world. A mother's world is dependent on feelings, and by isolating herself, she has metaphorically burned her fingertips: no more feeling or identity.
After she finally approaches her issues head-on, she ends up at a hotel on her way to visit Doug in New Orleans. She carefully steps outside of her hotel room and comes across grass. A feeling so insignificant to an ordinary human, yet so raw and fresh to someone who is accustomed to the artificial threads of the living room carpet. This is such a seemingly unimportant scene at first; but when examined, it becomes a breakthrough scene for Lois and anyone going through such a powerful transformation. The veil has been lifted and this is a definite sign she is on a fulfilling road to recovery. One of the final shots of the film is taken from the inside of the Riley's home looking out on Doug and Lois. So subtle, yet so complementing of the full circle the film and characters have made. Lois has accepted the past and is ready to move on with a happier life with Doug. Doug has filled the void that has for so long etched at his heart and desire for another female in his life.
Mallory, played by a prostitute Kristen Stewart, becomes the replacement daughter for the Rileys in the eyes of Doug. Through coaxing and an extreme makeover, Doug and Mallory become friends and embark on an interesting journey through the slums of New Orleans. Lois, Doug and Mallory go through a very dysfunctional, yet appropriate mission of renewal, acceptance and inspiring change in this form-fitting drama of melancholic times. A worthwhile success from this year's Sundance Film Festival!