A man accidentally steps in front of a train, killing himself. Who and what he was is unimportant now. It is the repercussions of his death, the slow ripples that it sends out and how it affects people--most of whom never even knew him--that we’re supposed to be keeping an eye on here. This seemingly everyday accident is the catalytic event in Aussie filmmaker Sarah Watt’s deft, death-obsessed drama Look Both Ways.
Borrowing a page or two (or three) from Paul Thomas Anderson’s melancholy Magnolia (or, more recently, Paul Haggis’ Crash), the film follows an ensemble cast linked together by the thinnest threads of providence. Our wide network of characters includes a photojournalist named Nick (William McInnes, noted Australian TV actor and husband to Watt) who finds out he has cancer, a pessimistic artist named Meryl (Justine Clarke, Japanese Story) who has just returned from her father’s funeral, an angry divorced writer (Anthony Hayes) whose girlfriend (Lisa Flanagan) is pregnant and, of course, the young widow whose husband just stepped in front of the train.
Though methodically paced, the film shows off some jazzy visual skills on the part of writer/director Watt (who began her career as an animator). Preoccupied with death, Meryl is constantly imagining elaborate ways in which she might die at any given moment (train wreck, car accident, shark attack). These scenes are played out in rapid-fire cartoon sequences that mirror Meryl’s morose watercolors. Nick, meanwhile, grows more and more concerned with all things medical. His mind keeps racing through quick-clip montages of medical texts, x-rays and microscopic cancer cells. These sequences give some real originality to the project and lend considerable energy to a film that might otherwise be hopelessly glum.
Despite its concentration on all things dead and dying, Look Both Ways is a “light at the end of the tunnel” affair. Death is, after all, a natural event. Over the course of the film, our diverse characters slowly come to grips with life or the lack thereof. One particular character, a sad-faced middle-aged man who seems to have no connection with the other characters, eventually provides the missing piece of the film’s puzzle, delivering a graceful, low-key coda.
Look Both Ways doesn’t handle everything with perfection. The film’s somehow inevitable emo music montage--a familiar sight since at least Magnolia--might strike a few viewers as a too-easy shortcut. This last TV season, it seemed like the “camera pans and characters look sad while emotional pop tune plays” turned up as the weekly climax to just about every episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “ER” and “Rescue Me.” It’s probably time to put that trope to bed. At the same time, the story’s narrative curlicues only manage to turn back on themselves, leading viewers not to any particularly earth-shattering, life-changing conclusion. Nonetheless, the film has such a likable, sad-sack sense of humor to it that it’s easy to forgive the occasional lack of sophistication.
Earnest and honest in delivering its simple “life goes on” message, Look Both Ways is an an unpolished indie gem that somehow finds comfort in inner conflict, existential angst and freak accidents.
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