Sometimes filmmakers (or artists of any stripe, really) make something that forces you to entirely rethink everything they’ve done before, something that acts as a key to previous works you didn’t even think needed unlocking. Let’s not go nuts: Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s sixth salvo at American society, doesn’t retroactively render Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling or Palindromes masterpieces. They’re still (mostly) noxious works, seething in disdain for their characters, off-putting in tone and craft—or are they? Life During Wartime isn’t exactly what you’d call optimistic, but it reveals a compassion in its maker that makes you feel it was there all along. Subtly. Maybe.
Wartime finds Solondz returning to 1998’s Happiness, in which he dragged an ensemble cast through some serious muck. But he also had unmistakable compassion for its sweet losers—including, most memorably, pedophile father Bill played by Dylan Baker—which may be why he’s resurrected them, albeit as different actors. Taking over for loopy Jane Adams, mousy Shirley Henderson plays (the aptly named!) Joy, visiting family in Florida. This includes Trish (Alison Janney), now divorced from Bill (now Ciaran Hinds) and raising their very inquisitive, very confused ginger son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder). Meanwhile, Bill, just out of prison, roams, not human, not yet a ghost.
The recasting can reek of gimmick (The Wire ’s Michael K. Williams as Philip Seymour Hoffman!), but it also serves as an elegant rejoinder to the plight of the characters, who feel incapable of overcoming the events of Happiness —in other words, of change. Bill can fuck Charlotte Rampling, but he still dreams of little boys; Trish can move to Florida for a new life, but she still once married a pedo.
Eventually the subject of 9/11 is raised, along with notions of recovery and forgiveness, but Solondz isn’t out to prove a thesis, as it feels in some of his movies. Wartime is exciting because it genuinely seems to be exploring its subject, unsure of what it will lead us or its director to find out.
Several desultory Solondz traits remain: too-direct one-liners that ring false (Trish telling Timmy her new boyfriend made her “wet all over”); gallows humor that sometimes crosses over to cruelty (the revelation of one character’s death is particularly nasty). But Wartime becomes the tragedy of people seeking easy answers in a complex world, not because they’re stupid, middle-class idiots, but because they’re human. He feels for them. Perhaps he always has?
War hangs in the background of the film’s characters, though it never explicitly intrudes. Describing Wartime as a post-9/11 film, Solondz says he wanted to “discuss the theme of forgiveness.”