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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.