From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: ‘You Can Count on Me’ gets nomination for ‘best portrayal of a religion’; ‘Dancer in the Dark’ makes strong death penalty statement

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the April 12, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

On a recent Monday night at Spokane’s Newport Theatre I joined around 12 fellow senior citizens viewing the film You Can Count on Me. The film came out in early November of last year in the large cities of our country. With the lack of local advertising for this gem of a film it would be hard to know it was finally in our area. There is always the danger that by the time you read this, You Can Count on Me may have disappeared into the sunset.

You Can Count on Me is the poignant story of a sister and brother in their 30s. As children they lost their parents to a car accident.

Sammy (Laura Linney) lives in the quiet village of Scottsville in the rolling mountains of beautiful upstate New York. Sammy has stayed in the family home outside the village. She is a loan officer of the local bank. Her son Rudy (Rory Culkin) is eight years old. Sammy and her husband permanently separated long before Rudy could form memories of his Dad.

Into Sammy’s responsible life comes her free-spirited brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo). He has been to Alaska and Florida and places in between. He goes with the wind and picks up odd jobs. Terry faithfully writes his sister. Sammy lovingly stores his letters in a file folder. Terry still owns half of the family home. He comes to get money and stay awhile.

Terry tries to do some fathering of Rudy. But he does it in his free-spirited way, such as taking Rudy to the billiard hall late at night. The sheriff later reports the event to Sammy.

A number of incidents happen, including Rudy meeting his father, with Terry’s help. Terry even ends up in jail overnight.

Meanwhile, Sammy gets involved with a male friend and, later, her boss in sexual encounters. She has a wild side that Terry tells Rudy was evident in high school.

In the midst of her own turmoil she invites her Methodist pastor over to shape up her wild brother. Terry is not appreciative of this intervention. The scene is humorous and serious.

The pastor says to Terry, “I’m not saying I’m always Mr. Effective, but I don’t feel like my life is off to the side of what’s important or based on closing my eyes to trouble in myself or trouble in other people. I don’t feel like a negligible little scrap floating around in some kind of empty void with no sense of connectedness to anything around me except by virtue of whatever little philosophies I can scrape together on my own.”

The pastor later meets with Sammy alone. She reflects on her own life and asks: “What is the church’s official position on fornication and adultery?”

The minister tries to ask why Sammy is doing what she is doing. She wants him to hit her with hell-fire and brimstone. In her attack on what she feels is psycho-babble he finally gets her to reflect on what he is saying. She reaches a moment of moral self-awareness.

You Can Count On Me is about the realities of daily life that touch our hearts and souls. Laura Linney as Sammy certainly deserves her Academy Award nomination. I would have also given Mark Ruffalo a nomination. The wonderful script is by Kenneth Lonergan, who also directed. He deserves to win best original screenplay at the Academy Awards.

Lonergan also plays the Methodist minister in the movie. For that I would give him “ best portrayal of religion” in a movie this year.

You Can Count On Me is rated R — under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. The film’s R rating is because of language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality.

*****

To my knowledge, Lars von Trier’s Cannes Film winner Dancer in the Dark never came to a movie theater in the Inland Northwest. And yet the film takes place in Washington State in 1961.

Dancer in the Dark, starring the Icelandic pop star Bjork, is now available in video stores.

I found it at times very difficult to watch, and at other times it was a haunting experience. von Trier gives us a melodrama in the tradition of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s Hollywood movies, such as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. To the melodrama he adds musical interludes that harken back to the old Hollywood musicals.

Selma (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant living in the west side of Washington State. She works in a sheet metal plant that turns out kitchen sinks. Her character is like that of the Biblical Job, with the addition of a waif-like innocence. Her aim in life is to save enough money to provide for eye surgery for her son Gene (Viadic Kostic) in a year or so when he reaches the age of 13.

Selma herself is almost completely blind, and yet works around dangerous machines each day. She places her hard-earned cash in an Almond Roca tin that she has hidden in her kitchen. Her good friend at work is Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). Each day Kathy watches out for Selma’s safety.

Selma’s neighbor and friend, Bill (David Morse), is in great financial difficulty. He sees where Selma’s money is hidden and steals the entire amount. The result is a confrontation that through circumstances leads to violence. Selma is convicted of a terrible crime and finds herself on Death Row at the penitentiary in Walla Walla. To the end she fights to see that her son will finally have his eye operation.

If this sounds a little wild, there’s more: added to this are musical interludes with Selma singing with fellow workers or the like, when she seeks relief from the overwrought tragedy of the story.

The film ends with one of the strongest anti-capital punishment scenes ever shown on film. It ranks up there with Dead Man Walking. Whether it strikes the viewer with its cinematic power depends on the viewer’s willingness to go along with the story.

The practical problem with the script by von Trier is that there would be so many ways Selma, with a little help from her friends, could have gotten out of her incredible situations.

And yet for viewers wanting to see an absolutely extraordinary job of acting by Bjork, this film is well worth seeing. Yes, it was a commercial bomb in the United States. But there is something about it that makes you believe Selma is really almost blind and that she really is going through such incredible suffering.

Bjork tells reporters she will never act again. To see her act in Dancer in the Dark is a great gift.

It is hard to believe that the radiantly beautiful Catherine Deneuve would work in a factory. And yet she beautifully portrays a good and caring friend.

Toward the end of the film former Saturday Night Live player Sioban Fallon is memorable as a caring prison guard.

The film looks like it was filmed in the Puget Sound region of our state. The Great Northern locomotive passing down the tracks looks incredibly accurate. In actual fact, however, the film was shot in Scandinavia.

At two hours and 10 minutes Dancer in the Dark is too long. Are you willing to take some risks? If so, parts of Dancer in the Dark will linger with you for a long time.

Dancer in the Dark is rated R for some violence.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane.)


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