The poster for The Mend shows a leather-clad Josh Lucas in a slightly bent back position, arms to the side, smoking a cigarette, the grey smoke swirling upwards. The backdrop is blood red. Lucas, with his sharp face, crooked nose, and beard, has an inherently cool look about him, and the cigarette and leather jacket makes him look like some sort of bad-ass.
But the image actually comes from a scene late in the film where Lucas' Mat and his brother Alan (Stephen Plunkett) are in a park at night drunkenly harassing a PA on a film set. Mat is taking a piss by a bush, hence that leaned back stance, typical for a drunk dude urinating in public. That poster it turns out perfectly encapsulates John Magary's debut feature: Mat is a truly pathetic character who falls asleep in coffee shops, pours beer over others' heads, and, apparently, gets so weird when it comes to sex that his girlfriend kicks him out of her place and forces him to seek refuge at his brother's apartment.
And that deep red background gives the poster a kind of stylishness that the film as a whole possesses, with Magary putting meticulous care in making his compositions beautiful and detailed (that aforementioned park scene contains some of the most gorgeous images you'll see all year as the two brothers stumble through the brush, cloaked in fog and hushed golden light) and packing as much diverse music (courtesy of Judd Greenstein and Michi Wiancko) in as possible, ranging from the eerie to the sublime.
The dichotomy between the film's gorgeous style and the anxiety, inanity and flat-out strangeness of its characters and plot is tough to sort out, and I'm not sure you're exactly supposed to. It's off-putting because such a beautiful film shouldn't have such ugly things in it, which is actually why I think it's such an outstanding piece of movie making. The tagline on the poster reads a stressed out comedy, which does not just relate to the characters, but to the viewer as well. We're constantly made to feel uncomfortable, and I think because we have a tendency to equate cinematic beauty with big, soaring, enlightening narratives, when we instead get a character trying to get through a locked door by stabbing it relentlessly with a knife, we're left with a sense of unease (and, I should add, with a bubbling laughter inside-"what's a chopped cheese?" "Chopped cheese is chopped cheese").
Magary's primary method for creating this discomfort is by creating a series of disturbances to what we might call ordinary experience. It starts with the aforementioned sexual encounter between Mat and his girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen), which occurs off-screen, followed by Andrea screaming at Mat as he leaves (watching Mat's almost comical ineptitude develop through the rest of the film, this opening comes across as funny-what could he possibly have done to make her so mad?).
The most important disturbance comes when Mat arrives uninvited to Alan and his girlfriend Farrah's (Micky Sumner) apartment while they're throwing a party (a tremendous Cassavetes-inspired 25 minute scene that more than anything else in the movie showcases Magary's skill as a director, as he's forced to juggle numerous characters, rooms, and modes of party-behavior). There's a loud helicopter flying overhead, which disrupts the party as the guests murmur and look out the window. It's here that Alan and Farrah notice Mat sitting on the couch, and the correlation between the helicopter and his arrival seems to suggest that he brings commotion wherever he goes. When Alan makes eye contact with him, Mat gives a goofy smile. He's slovenly, irresponsible and rude, yes, but you still can't help but like him a little.
After the amazing energy of the party scene, the film struggles somewhat to get moving, as we get a series of fairly dull moments with Mat, who is staying at his brother's apartment while he and Farrah are on vacation. There are some good bits, like when Mat cuts his foot on broken glass and tries to get a bandaid from the neighbor, but it's not until Alan returns early-without Farrah-that the movie really picks up again.
If there's a point to the mess, the broken glass, the electrical blackouts, the blood, the dead dogs, the bruised faces that is The Mend, it's that at the end of the day Mat and Alan love each other as brothers. They don't express this love through kindness, but through the fact that they can insult and laugh at one another, cause each other problems, and commiserate through pain. The film could have made an attempt to express this love in more sentimental ways, but it doesn't, and it's a testament to what I guess would be Magary's understanding that the innate love between siblings somehow takes precedence over despicable behavior. "When I recognize parts of you in myself, I get sick," Alan writes in a note to his brother. While initially Alan is clearly the more successful of the two, as the film progresses the brothers slowly become almost interchangeable. Initially Mat is the guest, but when Alan returns from the vacation alone and asks if he can have some of the chicken Andrea has made, you almost feel that their roles have been reversed, or at least more equivalent. And while Mat is fairly out of control from the start, Alan's descent to disorder is arguably more extreme, partly because there's more at stake in his life.
Either way, you get more of a sense of a brotherly bond between these two as things get worse. Rather than attempting an overly theatrical reconciliation moment, the film climaxes with a look of anguish and grief from Mat (in a movie chock-full of moments where Lucas gets to shine, this brief stare might the highlight of his great performance) into Alan's eyes. Without any dialogue, the movie communicates the idea that as a brother, Alan can't help but accept Mat even if he doesn't want to.
But ultimately this is less a movie that's trying to say something about family than that's trying to make a rich experience, less about ideas than about confusing human behavior. At times it's wickedly sharp (go back to the party scene and an exchange between Mat and an old associate, or when Andrea's young son tries to say goodbye to Mat and Alan and is initially ignored), often very funny, and so dark and strange that we're left slightly baffled and totally energized. I wish more movies could do that.