A mother haunts a home that never was, absorbed by the fog of a tremulous past where regrets bleat in the empty spaces of the night. Sydney Lumet once again stages a tumultuous and claustrophobic narrative for the silver screen, translating a static dialogue into the fluid grace of film language.
The strident tale involves a family’s final descent into the dark night of the soul, where all psychological boundaries are transcended and each character is stripped naked, where language is used like a volatile paint thinner to reveal their loathing towards the others…and towards themselves. The quartet is dominated by the Patriarch James Sr., a retired actor and alcoholic who pursued fortune (and attained it) at the cost of his artistic soul. Mary is the Matriarch, a woman who wanders the threshold of present reality lost in a morphine fog. James Jr. is the eldest son who is but a shadow of his father, a failure in every venture except in whoring and boozing. And Edmund is the youngest, his tubercular future not looking very bright, educated and once free but now trapped within the confines of an infectious family disease.
Each character vomits a hopeless monologue as the past becomes more alive than the present, buried in an abattoir of regrets and self-loathing, people who have dug their own graves and futilely lie down in them. Though this play was no doubt cathartic for Eugene O’Neil, who wanted it published posthumously, the problem is in discovering sympathy for the characters. They are vain, narcissistic, hostile, and show very little (if any) empathy or sensitivity towards one another (or anyone else). They are wealthy entitled braggadocios who have isolated themselves not only from the world but each other. This isn't a tale of addiction, though that may be a side effect of the underlying problem: this is a tale of a family that despises one another. This family grew from a bad seed and now bears poisonous fruit. But this tempest has no end, there is no hope of survival, and as each utters the truth (or their version of the truth) they acknowledge that they will never change. Edmund is the most likable but his physical disease becomes a metaphor for the fatal diagnosis of the family unit. He needs to be sent to a Sanatorium to have a chance to recover, a home away from home from a house that never was. His only hope of survival is to leave.
Sidney Lumet allows the camera to become voyeur into the melodrama where it meanders and tracks through the dilapidated house, following the characters as they stalk one another. He often films in close up for dramatic impact, to create intimacy with the characters whose very words and actions push us away. This creates frisson as the dual purposes of what we’re seeing and what we’re feeling work against one another. The first act seems to stutter a bit as the editing is a bit too formal and staged, but by the second act becomes fluent. Lumet allows each actor to hold the screen without quick editing or reaction shots, to focus upon their withered visages and empty lost eyes. The final scene as Mary floats down the stairs dragging her soiled wedding dress and sits at the table is wonderfully conceived. Lumet oh so slowly pulls the camera back to an impossible perspective (what happened to the walls?) so the eerie ghost lights from outside highlight the table, as Mary becomes forever lost in her youth. Then he suddenly cuts to extreme close-up of each before receding to the story’s end. Jarring and brilliant as Lumet gives the audience a final shock before fading away.
The acting is superb and professional as Kate Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robbards and Dean Stockwell reach deep down inside themselves and find their own demons to conjure for the silver screen. This long day’s journey finally ends not with a shout…but a whisper.
Final Grade: (A)