Writer-director Tim Blake Nelson‘s “Anesthesia” is one of those ensemble dramas in which the relationships between a group of people are only made clear gradually as the film goes on. This sort of movie generally tries to tell us that we are all connected, and we are all in this together, but Nelson avoids sentimentality entirely, much to his credit.
A veteran character actor, Nelson has the sort of face that seems to expect the very worst, and he writes his scripts and makes his films accordingly.
Beloved professor Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston) is first seen buying flowers for his wife Marcia (Glenn Close) at a corner deli. Alive on a wave of self-intoxication, Professor Zarrow introduces himself to the man who has sold him flowers at the deli for many years, Ignacio (Ivan Goris), and his slightly condescending bonhomie leads to bad trouble: After a discreet cut away from Zarrow, we see that he has been stabbed outside of a building on the Upper West Side, in a “perfectly senseless” way, as he says to a man (Corey Stoll) who comes to his aid, and then the film flashes back to a time shortly before the stabbing.
Zarrow’s son (Nelson) is dealing with the fact that his wife (Jessica Hecht) is having a cancer scare, while over in New Jersey we meet the wife of Stoll’s investment banker, a blond heavy drinker played by Gretchen Mol. We watch contests of petty irritation between Mol and a mother at her daughter’s school and a nasty argument over a chair in a café between student Sophie (Kristen Stewart) and an insensitive boy, and then we see a stand-off between a smart and despairing heroin addict (K. Todd Freeman) and his disapproving, somewhat removed lawyer brother (Michael K. Williams). The writing in these scenes is very studied and just this side of arch, and this is a challenge that all of the actors here have to negotiate.
These are articulate and sometimes over-articulate characters, people who use words like “irrepressibly” and “remuneration” and “superannuated.” You either make a leap and strive to seem like these words come naturally to you or you don’t, and most of the players pass this test, particularly Stewart, who has a nearly film-stopping monologue in a counselor’s office where she unloads all of her character’s rage and resentment about life.
Nelson shows his skill with performance in this scene, letting Stewart go as deep and as hard as she can into Sophie’s darkest feelings. Stewart’s Sophie is so despairing about what she sees around her that she has taken to burning herself with a curling iron in order to feel some control over her life, and Stewart makes this self-punishment seem gruelingly convincing and necessary.
Stewart is so tough and harsh here that she throws “Anesthesia” a bit off balance. What she does in her scene with the counselor is so riveting that it’s disappointing to go back to Mol’s and Stoll’s characters, neither of whom have much of a reason to be here except as ensemble window dressing. Waterston’s professor, who teaches philosophy with a specialty in Schopenhauer, is a perilously self-satisfied creation, with the sort of rapt and adoring students that seem to exist only in movies with high-flown teachers as characters (surely one or two of them might look a little bored by his lectures, or at least unimpressed).
The home life Walter shares with doting wife Marcia appears so cozy that it begins to be irritating, which is partly what the mysterious stabbing is all about — perhaps a kind of cosmic rejoinder. Maybe Professor Zarrow is tempting fate by being so happy with himself and his lectures on the futility of language and existence, all of which Waterston gives a kind of incongruous, folksy zest.
The editing and the compositions here can be slightly ungainly, and some of the characters are not quite fully realized, but Nelson ultimately transcends the limits of his own material through sheer, cussed determination and lively anger. It is the anger that runs through “Anesthesia” that gives it its flavor, its mood, and its ultimate gravity. This film demands to be taken very seriously, and it earns that right. The woebegone despair that is ever-present in Nelson’s face on screen also suffuses the best of his writing here as well as in his direction of Stewart, with whom he joins forces very dynamically.