No Rhyme nor Reason
A wife to her husband while driving home one night: “Why is it they put braces on teenage girls at the exact moment they’re most self-conscious?” Before he can respond, their car collides with an oncoming truck, killing the couple and leaving their two kids, Sammy and Terry, orphans. At the funeral, the children sit apart, crying and holding hands. Already, Sammy is positioned as the responsible sibling, her shirt buttoned up, her hair neatly combed, and her younger brother is the black sheep, marked by his unbuttoned shirt and flyaway dark, curly hair.
Cut to present day: Sammy (Laura Linney) is now the single mother of 8-year-old Rudy (Rory Culkin) and hasn’t seen Terry in over two years. In You Can Count on Me, writer-director Ken Lonergan explores their strained relationship as adults. But other than the tragic loss of their parents, the movie offers no explanation for Sammy and Terry’s failing interpersonal relationships—with each other and with others—or for their life choices.
Sammy still lives in the old family house in Scottsville, a small pastoral town in New York state where the local cinema features Sweetheart’s Moon and the local police officer greets you in the street. She works as a lending officer at the local bank and maintains an ordered life, down to the 15 minute break from work required to pick up Rudy after school and drop him off at the babysitter’s house. After Sammy receives a letter from Terry (Mark Ruffalo), she explains to Rudy that it would be good if he got to know his uncle. Perhaps Sammy believes this, but as the reunion unfolds, she does little to convince us that she really wants to get to know him better. On the morning of Terry’s arrival, Sammy is deep into preparations—cooking lasagna, arranging flowers, and baking cookies—because, as she tells him later, she thinks he’ll “like” such traditional signs of welcome. But once Terry shows up, it’s clear that the last things he cares about are flowers and a home-cooked meal.
Terry appears to have grown up into a bona fide loser, complete with a run-down one-bedroom apartment and girlfriend Sheila (Gaby Hoffmann), who doesn’t appear any better off than him. Surprise, surprise! They have communication problems (he tells her that he loves her, but then, as he inches his way to the door, announces that it might be best if they end their relationship when he returns from visiting Sammy). In Scottsville, Terry meets his sister in a restaurant, where he looks as though he’s ready to crawl out of his own skin: again Sammy is the good sibling and he’s the bad one, dressed in an old t-shirt he describes as the “haute cuisine of garments.” During their awkward conversation, Sammy learns that Terry has been in Alaska and in a Florida jail for three months for a fight he didn’t start, and is now in the midst of a slight predicament for which he needs money. He promises, “I’ll pay you back, man.” Sammy is understandably annoyed to learn that he came to visit with the sole purpose of borrowing money.
Sammy’s relationship with her brother sheds light on her awkward relationship with Rudy. They also have trouble communicating. When Rudy tells her about a school assignment to write a story “about anything,” Sammy tells him it’s creative; Rudy rebuts, “I think it’s unstructured.” Knowing so little about her, we’re left a bit in a lurch about her inability to connect with her son. Perhaps their relationship has nothing to do with the past, but rather with the fact that Sammy is a single mother struggling to maintain a household, a job, and raise a child. She won’t talk about her son’s father, Rudy Sr. (Josh Lucas), but Terry recalls that he a “prick” for leaving Sammy. When we finally meet Rudy Sr., we learn that he lives in a trailer park with his white-trash girlfriend (Kim Parker), but he acts more civilized than Terry, who ultimately provokes him and throws the first punch when the two do have an occasion to meet again. Any of these reasons are possible, but without more guidance, in the form of explication or flashbacks, it’s difficult for us to understand fully what’s going on.
Meanwhile, Sammy is unable to maintain any healthy relationship. Bob (Jon Tenney) is basically her fallback boyfriend, the guy she calls when she needs something. Her relationship with her new boss, Brian (Matthew Broderick) develops into something of a torrid affair. This functions on two levels: comic relief and the means by which Sammy is able to act out in ways we can only assume she was unable to as a young girl growing into adulthood. The jokes are obvious: Brian and Sammy engage in brief moments of passion in his office while coworkers overhear suggestive noises from behind closed doors; or, Sammy drives to meet Brian one night—after he calls from a payphone while out buying milk for his pregnant wife—while Loretta Lynn’s “The Other Woman” plays in the background.
While the affair enables Sammy to break free of her caretaker role, it’s only momentary—Rudy still needs a mother and Terry still needs rescuing (after landing himself in jail following his fight with Rudy Sr.). Sammy suggests that Terry stay in Scottsville, but he can’t. In a final act of rebellion, Terry tells Rudy that his mom is “a bigger fuck-up than I ever was,” and “It’s okay to lose your temper.” With those words, followed by a tearful goodbye and a brief conversation the next day, the film ends. There’s no “happily ever after,” only more strain, unhappiness, and lack of communication. While You Can Count on Me features talented actors, their skills are no match for Lonergan’s less-than-stimulating dialogue. Terry’s hemming and hawing and Sammy’s non-responses do little to rouse viewer sympathy. In fact, when Terry describes Scottsville as a town full of “dull, narrow people… with no perspective, no scope,” he might have been describing the film’s characters.