Mark Pellington’s I Melt With You is a difficult animal. And make no mistake — that’s what this is — an untamed animal of a motion picture. Snarling, angry, forceful, overwrought (by design), and passionately crafted in all departments, it’s the sort of film, no, make that provocation, that will enrage some viewers and cast a spell over others. I’m curiously caught somewhere in between; it’s too smart and thoughtful to be outright dismissed the way it was by so many “critics” when it hit limited release back in 2011, but I can’t help but feel that it could have been a stronger piece overall had some things been done differently. One thing’s for certain – this is far from the “worst movie of the year,” which is what many proclaimed it to be; that statement suggests that you’re not watching enough movies. This is a daring, bleak piece of work, with narrative shadings that remind one of Fight Club and stylistic tendencies that evoke both The Tree of Life and Enter the Void, and because Pellington and screenwriter Glenn Porter went for the emotional jugular so often, the film has a careening sense of energy and purpose, shoving you face first into hedonistic excess (the on screen drug use in I Melt With You, at times, rivals the shenanigans in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Wolf of Wall Street) without the promise of ever letting up, and then switching gears in the second half for a fatalistic existential thriller that goes to some extremely dark and disturbing places, none of it easy to forget. Since revisiting this film a few days ago, it’s stuck around in my memory banks, and even though I’m still not certain how I feel about the film overall, I do know that it’s a personal, extremely gutsy piece of storytelling that isn’t afraid to rub our noses in overwhelming stress and psychological turmoil.
Starring Rob Lowe, Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven, and Christian McKay as four best friends, all in their mid-40’s, all of whom are coming apart at the seams, I Melt With You tracks their immature and over the top behavior before taking a plunge off the deep end into a pool of despair. But is it immature, really? Are their raucous actions more a comment on how “every guy” feels deep down inside? Pellington and Porter certainly seem to think that the male beast is capable of these feelings. All of the guys are conflicted in one way or another: Lowe is a shady doctor taking bribes on the side from patients, Jane a failed writer turned teacher given to bouts of extreme substance abuse, Piven a Bernie Madoff-esque financial hustler with the All-American family image as protection, and McKay, well, he’s just a confused mess of sexual and spiritual emotions, a lost sheep if you will, unable to cope with what his life has become after a tragic accident. These are guys who met in college, became fast friends, and never lost touch. For their latest yearly weekend retreat, they rent a picturesque house perched ominously atop a cliff in Big Sur with the perfect ocean view, with the intention of drinking, drugging, and sexing themselves into oblivion over the course of few days. Then, something “big” happens, with one of the men taking his life in a desperate act of suicide, thus re-energizing a long lost secret from the past that comes back to haunt the surviving friends for the rest of the intensely realized narrative. Lowe has rarely been given a chance to be this dramatic, and he’s forceful in his various scenes of distress. Piven will always feel like Ari Gold, but here, it’s like Gold has been given his final comeuppance, and he plays the part very well. Jane, a versatile character actor capable of broad range, is excellent, possibly the best he’s ever been, delivering a full-throttle performance that never stops simmering. And McKay, an actor previously unknown to me, hits sensitive notes as the “quiet one” in the group, and he lends the entire piece a sense of serenity that it lacks in almost every other instance.
Pellington has had a very interesting career thus far, without ever becoming as prolific as his peers. Tons of TV episodes, concert films (U2: 3-D), documentaries, and then two of the best thrillers in recent years (Arlington Road in 1999 and The Mothman Prophecies in 2002), an offbeat comedy called Henry Poole is Here in 2008, and most recently, I Melt With You in 2011, which seems to have thrown him off the feature film map for a bit. And that’s a shame, because we need original voices like Pellington getting a chance to mix it up in the studio system. Not everything needs to feel homogenized into tasteless oblivion, and I love how he’s brought a sleek and stylish visual sense to each of the films I’ve seen from him while still paying attention to the demands of character and story. But one thing is for damn certain: Pellington is a consummate stylist, with a remarkable eye for unique composition, startling color, and striking shot selection. Working with the extremely talented cinematographer Eric Schmidt, every single image in I Melt With You is museum quality, with a deep and saturated palette that in tandem with the digital filmmaking process results in one glorious moment after another. Getting wasted has never looked this beautiful, but, rather interestingly, instead of glamourizing the proceedings, Pellington makes the entire debauched scene seem all the more sad and desperate and lonely; the beauty that accompanies the bodily destruction is a wonderful juxtaposition of mood and intent. The film’s “colorist” even got an upfront on-screen credit, something you NEVER see, but something that’s TOTALLY warranted, as the color in I Melt With You literally bleeds off the screen; eye-catching doesn’t even cover it.
I Melt With You, rather boldly, continually asks the viewer to identify, empathize, and sometimes even sympathize with these out of control characters, and I think that one of the reasons that the film was met with such harsh criticism is that people are afraid of what they see in these people; they don’t want to look in the filmic mirror and see a shred of any of these guys, even if in reality, there’s a piece of them inside all of us, however small, to a certain degree. Pellington and Porter are interested in getting a response from the viewer, something that will undoubtedly happen right off the bat. For some, this movie is going to be “too much,” and I can respect that. You have to WANT to want to see something like this. It’s a movie born out of a clearly personal need to tell this particular story, and aspects of the script were birthed from the real life tragedy of Pellington losing his wife way too early in their relationship. If I feel that there’s one major misstep in I Melt With You, it’s the inclusion of the Carla Gugino cop character, who shows up in the film’s most problematic portions during the third act. My issues have nothing to do with her acting abilities, but rather, her character seemed like an attempt to artificially ratchet the tension up even more, when to be honest, the crux of the film lies with the men and their various internal issues. This film was always going to be an intense ride, and the ending was always going to be a forgone conclusion, so I’m not 100% sure it was necessary to inject this aspect into the film. I Melt With You runs a generous two hours, but there’s a side of me that feels it could have made even more of a visceral impact had it been a tight 90 minutes. But, as is, I Melt With You is an extraordinarily draining and punishing movie, a work that feels “experienced” more than passively viewed, and it’s the sort of work that announces its intentions right up front through the use of heightened textual imagery and a pulsating soundscape. You will FEEL something by the time this film concludes.