All Good Things is a good example of a few things (like that redundancy? No? Too bad.): it’s successfully cold without really utilizing traditionally “cold” aesthetics, it’s another showcase for Ryan Gosling’s versatility, and it’s an alternative example of a voice-over driven structure as I’ve talked about on this blog.
And heeere we go….based on a true story the plot follows David Marks (Gosling), member of a surface-rich, underbelly-sleazy real-estate family, his schizophrenia stemming from his witnessing his mother’s violent death, and his relationship with his wife Katie (Kirsten Dunst). There’s murder afoot, cross-dressing, and some nicely clever flashforwards.
I’ve talked about cold aesthetics before, most recently in my post about Steven Soderbergh and Contagion. All Good Things is definitely a cold film in that we don’t particularly relate to our lead (with a few exceptions) and that we’re left with that bitter taste in our mouths. As opposed to a film like Contagion, director Andrew Jarecki does not achieve this feeling via wide-shots, oddball pacing and an unobtrusive camera. In fact, Jarecki’s coverage consists of many close-ups (if anything it’s claustrophobic at times) and a camera that seeks things out. He utilizes shadows in fun ways, to the extent that at times characters are almost in complete black, and his pacing, while jumping around in the timeline, is fairly standard. So how come the film is so detached? For one, the color scheme is dominated by literally chilly color temperatures. Secondly, the settings are designed to be brick, flat, empty, lifeless. But more than that it’s the acting. Gosling’s Marks is a man with something to hide, but in such a way that this hidden information doesn’t feel reachable to even him, let alone the audience. He plays Marks with a small smile, sidelong glances, and alternating fidgets and stillness. All Good Things is a film that could easily fail. A lesser – or different – actor may have tried to pull the humanity from Marks, to make more direct eye contact, to infuse the smiles with knowingness rather than the lost lip curl that Gosling has. But if Marks were likable, and in effect the film more sympathetic as a whole, the suspense would be less palpable, the character’s unpredictability more predictable, and the grimy/sterile world less in tune with the characters that inhabit it.
The film begins with voice-over, which is gradually revealed to be a lawyer questioning Marks about his wife’s disappearance. Eventually we get a few shots to Marks – Gosling heavily made-up to appear in his 50s – and all are in extreme close-up. The voiceover is selective in that it’s not continuous. There are convenient pauses for long sections of narrative to take place. The voiceover in this way doesn’t necessarily guide the story – the same exact action could take place without it – as much as it both gives and hides information. Gives: we know that Marks is still alive, that he’s on trial for something relating to his wife, and that he seems to answer honestly given the visual information that accompanies. Hides: we don’t know what specifically he’s on trial for, when the trial is taking place, and if he’s a witness against someone else or himself.
This is a great usage of voiceover in stringing the audience along. In addition to the aforementioned flashforwards that use Marks’ eventual cross-dressing as a means to hide identity via gender confusion, the device speaks to both the inevitability and unpredictability of the film (read: the voiceover works in the same way that Gosling’s portrayal of Marks does).
I think that Jarecki’s visual touch most comes through in his willingness to use true darkness, as I mentioned earlier, and also his decision as when to reveal spaces. Some of this credit certainly also belongs to cinematographer Michael Seresin (no stranger to darkness in film with Midnight Express and Angel Heart) and editors David Rosenbloom and Shelby Siegel . The former is not only horror-movie suspense (David appearing behind Katie) but also that kind of detached feel I mentioned earlier – characters aren’t always the most important part of the frame. Sometimes the room is given precedence. I’m thinking of a scene where David’s overbearing father Sanford (Frank Langella) stands in his office looking out at NYC. He’s lit, sure, but the lights out the window, and a pocket of light closer to frame that illuminates only a desk are more eye-catching. He’s the third, maybe fourth thing we see in frame. The space, the company, the city (ie the possibilities that money can bring) are more prominent. The latter works similarly in this example. Another good one is the courtroom from where the VO stems. It’s not until the very near end of the film, maybe around the 90 minute mark, that we move out of close-up and see the space. It obviously keeps things claustrophobic, but the technique also makes it easy to forget that we’re in a courtroom, placing the emphasis more squarely on David’s words and delivery rather than the trail at hand.