Objects seem safe. Unknowing and un-needy, they absorb desires and ask nothing in return, accommodating by definition. That’s why you brush your doll’s hair, trick out your car, frame your art. You can love your objects without fear of rejection. Or so you think. Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects, which she adapted from A. M. Homes’ short stories, suggests otherwise. Here, objects offer only temporary respite, and when you realize they can’t sustain the illusion of safety, the drop-off is devastating.
To make this rather obvious point, The Safety of Objects offers a series of disturbing relationships between humans and their chosen objects, most obsessive or destructive, all selfish and distressingly heedless. These relationships fester in a suburban neighborhood, where folks have too much time and space, too many objects around them. In this, the movie resembles other recent burb-breakdowns, from Ang Lee’s sobering Ice Storm and any of Todd Solondz’s increasingly grim visions to the portentous American Beauty and the soapy Life as a House.
Much like these films, Safety features a range of characters, across four families, harboring lots of secrets. Lawyer Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney), for example, is passed over for a promotion and walks out, not exactly quitting (so his secretary wonders when he’s coming back, and covers for him) and explaining his sudden appearance back home as the result of a “bomb threat.” (The terrorists have won, perhaps, when they serve as an excuse for this self-indulgent dweeb.) When Jim suspects that his wife Susan (Moira Kelly) is having an affair (and even more monumentally, for him, feels pressured by her request for a new dishwasher), Jim resets his own sights on a great big object — an SUV that a local radio station is giving away, in a contest at the mall.
When he finds that he’s too late to enter the contest (one of those keep-one-hand-on-the-vehicle-till-all-other-drop deals), Jim compromises in order to reach his all-important goal. He picks a likely winner, his neighbor Esther Gold (Glenn Close). She’s already in the contest at the urging of her daughter Julie (Jessica Campbell), who wants the car less than she wants her mom to get it for her. Julie’s reason for being so needy is obvious: for months, Esther has been spending all her time attending to another object, Julie’s comatose brother Paul (Joshua Jackson). Glimpsed in flashbacks that lead, slowly, to the car accident that leaves him in this state, once aspiring rock star Paul now lies hooked up to tubes and gauges, still and unchanging. (And frankly, it’s not a little weird to see Pacey so laid out.) For Esther, Paul’s ever-after unconsciousness makes him perversely safe to love: he’ll never leave her, never get in trouble worse than what he’s in now.
Paul is thus the film’s most excruciating object, and his vegetative condition — so resonant and so inexorable — affects everyone. As Esther makes him the focus of her desperate devotion, Julie and his father (Robert Klein) withdraw in horror and guilt, and his girlfriend, Annette (excellent Patricia Clarkson), feels herself the object of everyone’s accusations. She’s not wrong, especially when it comes to the couple of girls who had crushes on Paul, now checking out his coma-penis under the covers and watching Annette through her bedroom window, across the yard.
The film’s objects continue to accumulate: Annette’s daughter Sam (Kristen Stewart) is bravely tending to her autistic sister (Haylee Wanstall), and bearing up under her mom’s moodiness and drinking and her dad’s astonishing selfishness (he comes to visit only to announce that he’s marrying his decidedly unmaternal younger girlfriend, then accuses Annette of turning his children against him).
Sam focuses her energies on basketball and her lively best friend Sally (Charlotte Arnold), daughter of the wise and weary Helen (Mary Kay Place, who steals every scene she’s in, as usual). They smoke cigarettes, they giggle, they share secrets. But for all her efforts to fashion a life for herself outside the pathologies of adults, Sam can’t quite elude all damage. She’s been turned into another sort of object by the local gardener, Randy (Timothy Olyphant), himself mourning a terrible loss and fixated on Sam, not for her, but for what he projects onto her.
For all the objectification and distraction going on in The Safety of Objects, one relationship does stand out. Taking a cue from his frightened and frustrated father Jim, young Jake Train (Alex House) has found the ideal target for his adoration, a Barbie-type doll named Tani (perfectly, and deviously, voiced by Guinevere Turner, star of Troche’s first film, Go Fish). Technically, the doll belongs to Emily (Charly Chalom), but whenever Jake has a chance, he takes her away for a bit of kissy-face and lustful chatter.
While the film tends to offer these stolen moments as a kind of dire comedy, as when, in a family restaurant scene, he takes Tani under the table to converse, as his fellow diners look on in some distress. Jake is, of course, emulating behavior he’s seen elsewhere, his father’s for instance, treating people (his kids, his wife, his coworkers) like objects, unable to imagine they have feelings or needs commensurate to his own.
But beyond the like-father, like-son match, Jake also reflects most everyone in this neighborhood, and, the film implies, the extended community of self-involved individuals that comprises the burbs. This makes Jake’s story funny, if you’re feeling superior, and tragic, if you’re feeling sympathetic. In any case, if you’re feeling anything for someone who’s not you, you’re a step ahead.