Since his directorial debut with the cult favorite 'Welcome to the Dollhouse,' Todd Solondz has made a name for himself as a controversial, divisive filmmaker. His stylistically-dark, somber stories, with topics ranging between rape, abortion, suicide and pedophilia often force questions of acceptability in audiences. These are subject matters which not only interest Solondz as issues in need of open, healthy discussion. But they're also, as seen in his follow-up film 'Happiness' and ever more so in 'Storytelling' and 'Palindromes,' an attempt to expose the ugly, grim, and uncomfortable existence within middle-class American suburbia.
In 'Life During Wartime,' Solondz revisits the unfortunate struggles of three middle-aged sisters with a completely different cast. Although not made clear at first, Trish (Allison Janney) and her family serve as the plot's thematic center as her middle son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) prepares for his bar mitzvah. He takes a big interest in the idea of forgiveness and being able to forget the wrongs committed by others as the determining factor for becoming a man. The kid is extraordinarily bright as he tests the notion by asking his mother and her boyfriend (Michael Lerner) questions on forgiving terrorists as part of their moral obligation.
Timmy's certainty in his logic is, however, confounded when he learns his biological father (Ciarán Hinds), a convicted pedophile, is alive and recently released from prison. In a way, as Timmy struggles with this new knowledge, Solondz compares these two viciously awful crimes not so much to ask which the greater evil is, but to ask which is easier to forgive. As it turns out, offences made toward children are often unimaginable, let alone forgivable, and we are likely to agree. Even more taxing is the criminal with a conscience like Timmy's father, who pays a surprise visit to his oldest son in college (Chris Marquette) and while feeling relieved his sin is not genetic, fails to find absolution.
With this, the indie-filmmaker touches upon another area in this deeply solemn film: the ability to forgive one's self. The youngest of the three sisters, Joy (Shirley Henderson) is near the breaking point in her life — discontented, disconnected and without any meaningful direction. Haunted by visions of Andy (Paul Reubens), a former lover who committed suicide, she feels responsible for the decisions others make and can't forgive herself for thinking that way. We spend the least amount of time with the middle sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy) because apparently her life hasn't changed all that much — still, the well-off, successful writer but ultimately unfulfilled. And yet, in those very few, brief minutes we spend with her, she is the most guilt-ridden of the bunch.
As the film's title so subtly implies, this is life in a post-9/11 society caught in the middle of two wars precisely because it is so stressfully difficult to forgive and forget. It takes some time to finally find its proper footing, which is part of its drawback, but eventually Solondz carefully constructs a complex and intriguing narrative that's bitterly funny and expressively moving. 'Life During Wartime' doesn't really provide any insight to this issue of forgiveness, and even less offer any revelation to society's inability to perform such actions as a whole. But he unmasks this failure at a microcosmic level within the suburban family, and ultimately discovers, there is no easy solution to Timmy's inquiry.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Life During Wartime' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #574) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 16-page booklet with original artwork and features an insightful essay entitled "Wars on Terror" by film scholar David Steritt. There are no trailers or promos before being taken to the distributor's normal menu options.
'Life During Wartime' was filmed with the RED One camera system, and this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was taken directly from this digital workflow.
Framed in a 1.78:1 window, the picture shows a uniquely stylized look that somehow feels aged and weathered. The color palette displays a deliberate brown, amber push with yellow-green overtones, so primaries don't always appear accurate though richly saturated nonetheless. Blacks seem to suffer due to the cinematography in several scenes, looking more like deep, dark gray, and shadows tend to obscure some of the background info. Contrast, on the other hand, is generally crisp and comfortably bright with vivid, clean whites. Fine lines and overall definition are terrifically detailed, revealing individual hairs, lifelike textures in faces and tiny, trivial facial blemishes. The photography, once again, does intrude a tad on the video clarity.
On the whole, the presentation looks excellent.
Like the video, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack was also made from the original digital master files.
Though not as impressive, the track is still quite strong with plenty of clarity of detail and fidelity. Channel separation is well-balanced and off-screen effects are convincing, providing the front soundstage with a welcoming spatial presence. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, even in whispered, intimate conversations. The audio doesn't exhibit a great deal of dynamic range, but it's even and consistent throughout with a low bass that plays a quietly subtle role.
There's not much action going within the soundfield, but the character-driven film comes with a lossless mix that does its job well.
'Life During Wartime' shares the same assortment of special features as its DVD counterpart, which isn't much but still entertaining and quite good.
Todd Solondz's 'Life During Wartime' offers an intriguing approach to the discussion of forgiveness, particularly in a post-9/11 society. The indie filmmaker revisits the characters he initially created in second feature, 'Happiness,' and posits scenarios of guilt, forgetting past actions and forgiving unimaginable crimes. It makes for a compelling watch, but as is usual in Solondz's work, he doesn't offer any penetrating insight into the matter or a conclusion with a rewarding solution. The Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection features an excellent picture quality and a good audio presentation. Supplements are quite small, but they are satisfying and worthwhile nonetheless, making this a strong purchase for fans.