It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos (and, in this case, their mother): Deck the Gyllenhaals.
Yogesh Raut has worked as a psychology instructor and film critic and holds a master’s degree from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He currently hosts the Recreational Thinking podcast and writes the blog The Wronger Box.
From the climax of his 1957 debut feature 12 Angry Men to the closing moments of his final film (2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) father-son conflicts have been a recurring theme for director Sidney Lumet. So while there are certainly many threads running through the Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal-scripted, Lumet-helmed Running on Empty (1989) — a story of married ex-radicals Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti), who’ve been on the run with their kids Danny (River Phoenix) and Harry (Jonas Abry) for 15 years after their Vietnam-era bombing of a chemical plant inadvertently paralyzed a janitor — I can’t help but foreground the family dynamics and specifically the tension between Arthur and Danny.
Looking back on his oeuvre in his essential book Making Movies, Lumet describes Empty as most similar to one of his lesser-known works, Daniel (1983), because they are both about young men dealing with the fallout from their parents’ political radicalism. But to me, the true parallel is Long Day’s Journey into Night, Lumet’s 1962 adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill masterpiece that remains American literature’s greatest dissection of the dysfunctional family. In Journey, a family filled with passionate and talented people falls apart because no one in it has the capacity to communicate clearly. Empty is essentially its counterpoint — a family under chronic stress, the children having every reason to hate the parents and the parents having every reason to hate each other, that somehow holds together.
What makes the difference? The answer is love, and the key scene demonstrating it comes partway through Empty, when the family, along with Danny’s new girlfriend, Lorna (Martha Plimpton), gathers for a birthday celebration that turns into an impromptu sing-and-dance-along to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” Lumet’s wide framing compositions show us a family that stays together because it sways together — not with the uniform rigidity of trained dancers but with the authentic fluidity of ordinary people whose hearts are more in sync than their bodies.
Even aside from that instant-classic musical sequence, we can see love in the way Arthur and Annie cradle each other in bed. In the way that Arthur instructs Danny and Harry on how to cook dinner. In the quiet piano duet between Annie and Danny.
Piano-playing skill is also a motif in Journey, where it represents the ways in which James Tyrone, Sr.’s ego won’t allow anyone else’s artistic talents to flourish within his household. Throughout much of Empty’s third act, in which Danny’s musical abilities earn him acceptance to Juilliard, we fear that Arthur is going to be another James Tyrone, that he’s going to let his obsessive need for control — the same control that, credit where it’s due, has allowed his family to survive while on the run from the FBI for 15 years — override his son’s potential.
But there is a key difference between the two patriarchs. James Tyrone is unable to relinquish center stage until deep into Journey’s final act, when he belatedly starts listening to his son Edmund — but only after a very long speech justifying himself. Arthur Pope also has a late-night living-room conversation with his boy, when he catches Danny returning from seeing Lorna, but it is anything but showy. “You sleeping with her?” he asks. When Danny nods, he replies simply, “OK.”
Lumet writes in Making Movies that the theme of 12 Angry Men can be summed up in one word: “Listen!” Really, though, that’s the theme of all his best work, and it’s the reason that Arthur Pope is the father that James Tyrone never can be. He listens to his son. He realizes that his son is growing up and that growing up means growing apart. And so, even though all of him wants to keep clinging, he lets go.
I’ve haven’t talked much about Foner Gyllenhaal’s contribution to Empty, but suffice to say that Lumet’s loyalty to writers is his greatest consistency (and, when he has hold of a bad script, sometimes his Achilles heel). Foner Gyllenhaal’s Academy Award-nominated screenplay is classically structured, front-loading exposition and smoothly escalating drama while crafting early sequences that are powerfully mirrored in the film’s devastating closing moments. She limns supporting characters like Lorna and Annie’s father (Steven Hill) in a few biting lines, allowing the narrative to proceed at a compelling pace even as she steadfastly refuses the temptation to turn it into a thriller.
So many scenes feel like masterpieces in miniature, but I want to particularly single out the one in which Danny sneaks off following his Juilliard audition and pretends to be a pizza delivery boy in order to see his birth grandmother (Augusta Dabney), who has no idea who he is. Phoenix underplays the encounter perfectly, demonstrating a prodigious mastery of acting choices that makes clear just what a tragedy it was that he died so young. But give Foner Gyllenhaal credit for crafting the moment to end on a line of deadpan hilarity. It’s one of the movie’s few deliberate jokes, and it’s a perfect example of how to balance things out with levity right before thrusting the audience into a heartrending climax.