'Golden Exits': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A low-key gem for connoisseurs.

Alex Ross Perry's latest dialogue-driven comedy stars Jason Schwartzman, Mary-Louise Parker, Chloe Sevigny and Emily Browning.

Alex Ross Perry writes films with a great many words in them, and Golden Exits is no exception. However, in this, his fifth feature, the words have very little to do with what’s really going on between the emotionally fraught characters. Instead, the unstated angst, desire, suspicion, frustration and emotional turmoil is almost entirely expressed by Keegan DeWitt’s extraordinary musical score, which runs like an underground river through this elegant and supremely expressive gem of a film. Given its lack of incident and mostly grumpy and/or off-putting characters, this will not be the pic that expands Perry’s small audience. But it is something close to superb.

Specifically, this inexplicably titled film is Perry’s Claire’s Knee, Eric Rohmer’s sublime 1970 feature about physical desire that is not so much thwarted as benignly channeled. Perry actually expands upon Rohmer’s approach by extending the sublimated emotions to multiple characters, none of whom do anything to change the status of their frozen lives. It’s like a French farce in stasis.

Long married Nick (Adam Horowitz, aka Ad-Rock of The Beastie Boys) and Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny) perpetuate a frozen-under-glass marriage evidently instigated by a long-ago indiscretion by Nick, an archivist who works in a cramped little room downstairs from their Brooklyn apartment. Although he has nothing to distract him from his work aside from a no-doubt very active fantasy life, this proficient neurotic is running behind on his latest task, making an inventory of the estate of the father of his wife and her sister Gwen (a royally acerbic Mary-Louise Parker). So in to help him speed up the process comes a genuinely distracting Australian student, Naomi (Emily Browning), in New York for a spell and in need of some income.

Having Naomi little more than an arm’s length away for eight hours a day does nothing to speed up Nick’s productivity and, with his wife hardly oblivious to the ripe potential, the whole situation is clearly suspect.  

Yet another temptation enters the mix in the person of Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a music studio boss and old family friend Naomi last saw when she was five. There’s a noticeable vibe between them, although Buddy is married and seems intent, against his nature, to be a good boy; as opposed to Nick, his policy is steer clear, much to Naomi’s disappointment.

As you wait patiently — or perhaps you don’t — for something to actually happen, it slowly dawns that, as is often true in books but not in films, what’s really happening lies not in physical action but in the clogged but still beating hearts of all the characters. And it’s left to DeWitt’s brilliant score to expose all this. You barely notice the music at first, so discreetly is it layered onto the soundtrack. But it’s there, almost constantly, quietly roiling and churning, ebbing and flowing in an exceptionally beautiful way that becomes more noticeable with time but never distracts or calls attention to itself. It’s hard to think of another recent example of a strictly instrumental score that was so intrinsically linked to the artistic essence of a film.

Even as she unintentionally shakes up the lives of all those in her proximity, Naomi tries to maintain a polite equilibrium in an impossible situation. Realizing that New York in the spring has more to offer a gorgeous young woman than being stuck in a basement with a horny neurotic all day long, Naomi does what she probably should have done the first day, getting away before contracting some New York neuroses.

The film is small and calm on the surface but, apart from Naomi, the characters share a crockpot of neuroses and pent-up frustration, and their tenuous harnessing of their self-destructive impulses makes them uniformly unhappy. And what do they do about it? Nothing at all.

The performances are all spot-on, with Horowitz quietly conveying low-boil distraction and discombobulated desire, Parker providing a fresh breath of foul air whenever she’s on and Sevigny chillingly robotic. As for Browning, she’s as enchanting as the character is meant to be without doing much of anything, and beguiling as such.

And casting directors take note: If there’s ever an English-language film in which an actress to play Isabelle Huppert’s daughter is required, Browning’s the one; they share the same short stature, similar pale skin and reddish-brown hair and the ability to fascinate even as they just sit and watch the world go by.

Production companies: Faliro House Productions, Washington Square Films, Bow and Arrow Entertainment, Forager Film Company, W/G Media Group
Cast: Emily Browning, Adam Horowitz, Mary-Louise Parker, Lily Rabe, Jason Schwartzman, Chloe Sevigny, Analeigh Tipton, Craig Butta, Keith Poulson, Jake Perlin, Kate Lyn Sheil
Director-screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry
Producers: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Alex Ross Perry, Adam Piotrowicz, Katie Stern, Joshua Blum
Executive producers: Joe Swanberg, Eddie Linker, Chris Webber, Peter Gilbert, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Production designers: Fletcher Chancey, Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Amanda Ford
Editor: Robert Greene
Music: Keegan DeWitt
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

94 minutes