Film

Igby Goes Down (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Burr Steers' first feature is populated by exceptionally quirky characters, most related by blood.


Igby Goes Down

Director: Burr Steers
Cast: Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Claire Danes, Ryan Phillippe, Bill Pullman, Amanda Peet, Jared Harris
MPAA rating: R
Studio: United Artists
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-09-13 (Limited release)

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).

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.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image