Senseless death is something we as humans will never understand. That’s a fact of life, and it takes a delicate and sensitive hand to tell the story of those affected by that kind of unknowable pain. In Michael Shannon’s directorial debut “Eric Larue,” we get a glimpse into the aftermath of a tragic event that leaves the same such unknowable pain in its wake — but some major tonal snafus throw off what could have been a poignant and subtle mediation on grief and turn it into an uneven film full of missteps amid admirable performances.
“Eric Larue” follows Greer’s Janice, the mother of a high school boy who shot and killed three of his peers during school one day. Sometime after the tragedy, she attempts to move on with her life, returning to a retail job that doesn’t want her and navigating her crumbling marriage with a man (Alexander Skarsgard) who is growing increasingly religious and distant. In an effort to truly begin anew, she attempts to have a talk with the mothers of the children her son killed, a decision that will shake and shape her in ways she has yet to realize.
This adaption of Brett Neveu’s play is clearly a vehicle for Greer, who definitely steps up to the plate to receive and thrive on meatier material. She’s a well-known and pretty beloved comedy queen, and she’s good at what she does, but it’s rare that we get to see her dig deep into something wholly dramatic. No surprises here for those who have always seen her strengths, but Greer is the heart and soul of this film, showing out her acting chops in some of the biggest ways yet in her career. She gives her all to the film’s most dramatic and tense moments while also bringing that sense of unique levity she can to any situation where she feels compelled to sprinkle it in. She seems to intimately understand the heart of her character’s impulse to move on as much as she understands her inability to let parts of the devastation go. It’s a layered and nuanced performance that sees Greer morph into someone uniquely human, for better and for worse.
Skarsgard, who plays Janice’s husband, Ron, is particularly effective as a man who spends the entire film turning into someone else. His descent into the comfort of religion is propelled by a woman at his church, Lisa (Alison Pill), with whom he becomes close as Janice struggles with her emotional well-being while coming to terms with speaking to the mothers. Skarsgard and Pill have great chemistry and their connection aids in keeping Janice in a sympathetic light, even when her thoughts and opinions might be conflicting for the audience. Skarsgard is perfectly cowardly, while Pill is textbook saccharine in her God-fearing, a role that feels like a cousin to her bizarre teacher in 2013’s “Snowpiercer.” They both make for a weighty supporting cast that balances out Greer’s confusion with empty promises and shielded sorrow.
That said, the performances couldn’t really pull the film back from venturing into bizarre tonal confusion throughout many scenes, giving the audience whiplash between darkly comedic and painfully sad. The same could be said about life, yes, but in its lighter moments, this film goes a step too far in the comedic direction in a way that becomes distracting and a bit off-putting. The fault seems to be both within Shannon’s directing and Neveu’s script. The film’s dialogue at times feels less serious and less strong than the moment calls for, while at other times it packs the proper punch. Neveu’s work is particularly strong during Janice’s encounter with the other mothers, full of gut-wrenching truths. But Shannon’s directorial impulses sometimes err on the side of almost uncanny, a touch surreal, which adds to the strange tonal shifts. Overall, his direction gives us a film that leans too hard into the small comedic relief moments, trying to make something more out of them than they are. And the reality is that when tragedy strikes, a lot of the time laughter isn’t enough.
But what the film’s writing and directing does well, it does well, and that includes some of the most heart-wrenching moments of the film. Janice’s meeting with the mothers is a powerhouse of a scene, strapping the audience in for a long, uncomfortable ride on a train of unending harsh realities. It’s well-written and well-directed, especially considering the fact that it’s a moderated conversation with Janice’s pastor (Paul Sparks) sitting in. The scene doesn’t try to pull any fast ones with a comedic edge, it just cracks open the divide between civility and truth and allows its characters to charge forth unafraid.
The movie also really nails the sense of detachment, displacement and confusion within Janice’s marriage. Shannon gives us these really sparse and impersonal rallies between Janice and her husband, forcing them to play emotional tennis with one another as they reckon with what their son has done and where it’s left them as people. It’s not easy to navigate a relationship in the wake of an irreparable cataclysm, but that’s exactly what these characters try — and fail — to do. It’s a noble depiction of trying to pick up the pieces after the world one’s relationship stood on seems to erode.
These major emotional wins make the tonal shifts all the more jarring and serve to work against those choices in the grand scope of the film. While this movie certainly makes a point to highlight how confusing it is to be struck by the firm fist of tragedy, it doesn’t excuse those moments that steal the spotlight from the very real dramatic core of the movie.