Gus Van Sant is typically a polarizing filmmaker. You either love his work or you hate it. For me that polarization occurs between his individual films. I don't fully love or hate his body of work because, the way I see them, each film either works or it doesn't. There is no middle ground. Whenever I make this claim to die-hard Gus Van Sant fans, the retort is usually, "You probably only like his mainstream movies like 'Good Will Hunting' and 'Finding Forrester,' don't you?" But that's not the case. Be them odd or mainstream, his movies either speak to me or they don't. Of course I love 'Good Will Hunting.' Who doesn't? I also love 'Gerry' and 'Milk.' Unfortunately, as much as I expected to love 'Restless,' it joins 'Last Days' and 'Elephant' as Gus Van Sant films that don't do anything for me.
'Restless' stars Henry Hopper (son of Dennis Hopper) as Enoch, a quiet death-obsessed loner. Instead of going to school and spending time with other kids his age, Enoch enjoys going to funerals and memorial services. He's not there to crash it and steal food; he can't put down his curiosity about what lies in the great beyond. He stares at the bodies in the caskets almost as if he wishes he could be in their place just to know what comes next. Enoch watches with longing eyes as friends and family members stand before the funeral masses expressing their grief over the loss or their gratitude for having known said person.
It's at one of these memorial services that Enoch is recognized as being a "crasher" by a cute girl who isn't afraid to confront him about it. Her name is Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) and she's an optimistic and openly loving person. She doesn't yell at him and ask him to leave. Instead, she asks him what the draw is, why he attends funerals for people he doesn't know. It doesn't take long for them to form a solid relationship and the real answers and secrets to come out from one another.
Annabel starts first by telling Enoch that she has terminal brain cancer and is only expected to live for another three months. When he falls in love with her, his perspective and outlook on life and death is questioned. Enoch's initial reaction was slight, perhaps seeming a little envious. But as he begins to fall in love with her, a fear and anger grows within. He doesn't want to lose her. Enoch finally reveals his whole self and explains from where his obsession stems. It used to be that Enoch was curious about death since he lost his parents at an early age, but now that he's growing up and he's about to lose someone again, he starts to hate death and fear its ominous coming. Death loses its appeal and mystique when he falls for someone whose time is running out. If Annabel dies as soon the doctors are saying, Enoch will return to his solitude – well, partial solitude. This is where things get wacky.
Enoch has an imaginary friend named Hiroshi. Hiroshi was a Japanese fighter pilot during World War II who went out in the way of the kamikaze. Enoch and Hiroshi talk life, girls, happiness – basically everything. They even throw rocks at trains and play Battleship together (which Hiroshi always wins). But Hiroshi isn't just an imaginary friend to Enoch. Enoch is fully aware of how preposterous the idea is, but he's fully convinced that Hiroshi is a ghost that has been assigned to watch over him since the day his parents died. Annabel is so easy going that it doesn't seem to phase her at all. In fact, she plays along with it, asking Hiroshi questions and having Enoch repeat the answers to her.
The whole Hiroshi storyline eventually serves a purpose, but it feels like it should be a separate idea for a whole other film. The friendship of Enoch and Hiroshi plays second fiddle to the relationship of Enoch and Annabel. Each relationship deserves its own film, but instead the two are crammed together in story that doesn't blend them well except for a few minutes.
Perhaps I'm tainted from having seen '50/50' recently, but if I want to watch a genuine flick about people coping with cancer, I'm not going to pick 'Restless.' Not only is there too much other stuff cluttering the story, but it doesn't quite do what it's trying to. Enoch and Annabel's relationship isn't all that grounded. The cancer story seems too surreal to carry any weight. The Hiroshi story is decent, but not very important. And part of me believes that everyone glided through this film. I've never seen Hopper act before, so I'm not sure if he's always this bad. But Wasikowska has proven herself several times now and her performance here is pretty bad too.
The Gus Van Sant films that I don't like all have one thing in common: they never come close to meeting their extremely high potential. Because he's a proven and fully capable director, there's no reason that he shouldn't meet those potentials each time. 'Restless' isn't terrible. As long as you know that you're getting into a jumbled, messy and surreal teen drama about friendly ghosts, young love and death, then you might enjoy it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony has given 'Restless' a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release containing a Region-A/B/C BD-50 and DVD of the film in standard blue two-disc keepcase. So far as I have found, the only way to purchase the DVD is in the Blu-ray combo pack. There's an image from the film of Enoch and Annabel having a moment together printed on the back of the cover art that is visible through the blue plastic case. All of the usual pre-menu mumbo-jumbo can be skipped over to quickly get to the simple main menu.
'Restless' has been given a sub-par 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode presented in it's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Typically, you can expect greatness from Sony's Blu-ray released, but this one is very troubled.
There hasn't been any official word on how Van Sant shot 'Restless,' but based on the look of the film itself, I'm going to say it had to have be shot digitally. This isn't always a bad thing, but it is here. Although not as bad as Michael Mann's recent films, 'Restless' lacks that "film" feel – and I'm not just talking about grain. The image appears flat, two-dimensional and lacking depth. The only benefit is the absolute cleanliness.
The entire film carries a hazy look that scrubs away all detail. Nothing within the frame ever has that sharp look we expect from HD cinema. Textures are gone. Enoch could have blonde stubble on his face and you'd never know it because of how weak the image is. The contrast is set too far to the right, with blacks never appearing black at all. Colors are washed out by this haze. It nearly resembles 91 straight minutes of soft focus.
Another odd flaw is that the movement of bright objects in front of dark backgrounds causes echoing traces of the moving object in the darkness. Artifacts appear in the same dark backgrounds, as do bands. Edge enhancement and DNR are absent, but you wouldn't notice even if they were around.
'Restless' has been given an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that also could have/should have been much stronger. As is, it's highly problematic. The music and rare use of effects sound good, but the vocal are awful.
The root of the problems is the vocal mix. For the majority of the film, the vocals are distorted and muffled. When characters unexpectedly get loud, the volume of their voices causes distortion. The track is also much too soft, ranging from quiet to very quiet. You'll strain to hear the dialog and at times it sounds like the vocal track was cranked up really high just to let us hear them. When this happens, the annoying ambient hissing sound of the room becomes evident. You can turn the volume up to hear them, but some dialog is still going to be lost. You might as well summon the subtitles to aid your viewing experience. Sometime the vocals even sound hollow and echoey.
The music is the best-sounding element in the audio track. It's always full and well-mixed. The effects are also decent, occasionally making use of the rear channels. Being a little indie movie set in rural Portland, there aren't too many opportunities to let the effects fly.
'Restless' is basically two movies in one, the combination of which doesn't give either of them any time to solidify on their own. The romantic "young love" story of Annabel and Enoch never carries any romance. You'll doubt their proclaimed feelings for one another – more so his than hers, because Hopper is such a bad actor. The story of Enoch and Hiroshi is simply unfitting. It clogs the grander story's flow. Plus, it's simply poorly written. Enoch is always ditching Hiroshi and throwing him under the bus. If I was his protecting ghost, I'd have left him alone a long time ago. The low qualities of the video and audio do nothing more than distract from the viewing experience. Instead of focusing on the emotions of the story at hand, you'll be wondering how Sony put out such a back-looking and -sounding Blu-ray. And although they try their hardest, all of the special features are throw-aways, never revealing anything about the film that you wouldn't already know from watching it.