Burr Steers’ first feature is populated by exceptionally quirky characters, most related by blood, or whatever it is that you count for family. Those unrelated are sucked into the vortex by curiosity, neediness, or unfortunate timing. The adults are uniformly selfish and/or oblivious, the kids (that is, the characters who are chronologically younger—everyone seems old before their time here—are unhappy, angry, and figuring ways to get even, or at least to get out.
Igby (Kieran Culkin) is technically the youngest of this dark crew. But his burden is weighty, so he groans and frets and occupies the most emotional space. In case you’re inclined to have any doubt that his life is hard, Igby Goes Down begins with the death of his mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon).
Igby Goes Down
Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Claire Danes, Ryan Phillippe, Bill Pullman, Amanda Peet, Jared Harris
US theatrical: 13 Sep 2002 (Limited release)
She’s lying on her expensive uptown bed, death-rattling, as Igby and his supercilious older brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe), a student at Columbia, look on, somewhat horrified, but not really. “Why is it taking so long?” they wonder aloud. “It’s all the fucking tennis,” observes Ollie, over a fleeting image of Mimi huffing and puffing in her on-court glory. And then he places a plastic bag over her head, ties it at the neck, and the boys watch her eyes pop wide, just before she dies.
Most of what follows is flashback, revealing, more or less, how this little unit came to this dreadful moment, part liberation, part horror show. It appears that Igby’s favorite relative is his father Jason (Bill Pullman), for years locked away in an asylum, following his complete collapse when Igby was 10 (in these flashbacks within the flashback, he’s played by Kieran’s younger brother Rory, and Oliver by Peter Tambakis). Jason is a sensitive fellow, not working when you meet him, but taking the kids to movies in the afternoons—for instance, Holiday, with the brilliantly mad Katharine Hepburn. “When are you going back to work?” Igby asks as they walk home. Hmm, he sighs. “I’m not completely well.” And besides, he adds, it’s not the right time. “I’m no good in winter. These gray days, they’re so sad.”
Jason’s poetic soul is too fragile for this world, and certainly too easy a target for Mimi, who is grasping and willfully blind to anything that doesn’t suit her immediate needs. She has a particular grudge against Igby (as to his repeated screw-ups in high school, she observes, “His creation was an act of animosity, why should his life be one?”). Most all the film’s days are gray, strange and wry. The characters survive with sharp humor and the kind of devastatingly insightful dialogue that most real-life people can’t be bothered to think up. In this way, the film might remind you of The Royal Tennenbaums, but it’s not so smug. For all its remote and self-absorbed characters, Igby Goes Down feels surprisingly un-remote. In large part, its rich ambiguity is a function of Culkin’s admirable performance, subtle and not too earnest.
The family’s difficult relations also provide for this ambiguity, as when 10-year-old Igby witnesses his father’s meltdown. The boy is brushing his teeth when Jason walks into the shower behind him, wearing his pajamas, then begins beating on his head and wailing as the water runs. The shower door—one of those shaped glass numbers that makes the view ominously mottled—allows just enough clarity that the horror is visible, punctuated when Jason smashes his arm through the door, glass, blood, and water flying everywhere, as he crumbles to the floor, sobbing. Little Igby watches, stunned, and you’re granted his point of view (here as elsewhere, Wedigo von Schultzendorff’s cinematography is meticulous and affecting).
And so, though he loves his dad, Igby seeks a healthier role model (sort of: he remembers his father as a victim, but admires his efforts, however feeble, to resist his mother). Healthy role models are, however, nonexistent in this over-moneyed world. The local priest can’t handle him (“If heaven is such wonderful place, then how is getting crucified such a big fucking sacrifice?”), his shrink slaps him in the head when he wises off (“You prick, you can’t fucking hit me!”), and the officers at military school can’t keep track of him. Though most observers see him as “a pathological liar,” because the film tends to take his point of view, you’re inclined to see his stories as creative self-defense.
Mimi encourages Igby to spend time with his wealthy godfather, D.H. Baines (Jeff Goldblum), as something of a mentor: at the very least, he pays tuitions at the series of schools Igby attends. D.H. asserts that “contracts” are the key to life, that “families should be run like companies.” His own presumption of privilege, however, allows him to renegotiate unilaterally, such that he abuses everyone around him, from his clueless wife Bunny (Celia Weston) to his dancer-junkie girlfriend Rachel (Amanda Peet) to Russel (Jared Harris), Rachel’s gay-seeming performance-artist caretaker-friend, to D.H.‘s dear, equally abusive friend Mimi, along with her boys. Though he offers Ollie and Igby summer jobs, rehabbing real estate that he’ll be selling for ridiculous money, he’s clearly mystified by Igby’s lack of drive. Ollie is happy to make money, to be Republican in the most Catholic sense, but Igby is a little squirmy kid who refuses to conform, to play shrinks’ games, to pretend to please his mother.
During one summer sojourn, Igby meets Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), catering at one of D.H.‘s unbearably schmoozy parties. Igby’s attraction to Sookie has to do with the fact that she’s older, and he’s still trying to work out his mother issues. Sookie proves as unreliable as anyone else in Igby’s vicinity, despite her initially self-aware, even cynical appearance. She encourages Igby to get his GED, then promptly sleeps with Oliver, whose smarminess could not be more obvious, because, she weeps by way of explanation, “he’s my age.” This might make sense if the explanation were presented from Igby’s point of view, but the film shows Sookie alone with Oliver, suggesting that her perspective might be part of its emotional vortex.
Still, it’s hard to tell. The only consistently decent character in Igby is the irreparably damaged Jason, as he exists in Igby’s memories, and finally, in a brief, wordless visit to his rest home room. Igby’s eventual escape from the phonies and the scoundrels might seem more hopeful than the fate met by his most obvious precursor, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, but it’s not exactly a happy ending. He’s on his way to California, where sunny days may be warm, but they’re also notoriously illusory.