A few times every year, I come across a film that generated slight buzz in casting and pre-production, but ultimately got stuck in limited theatrical purgatory before silently landing on DVD. Films like this are dangerous. There are, after all, many ways to spend 90-120 minutes (cinematically or otherwise), and deciding to allot that time to a film that went nowhere could be a gross waste of time.
Luckily for me, and hopefully for you, Massy Tadjedin’s Last Night is not only worthy of your time, but all together remarkable as well.
Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival last September, then finding moderate success abroad before being barely disturbed in the States this summer, Last Night tells the story of a married couple and their coincidental temptation with infidelity.
At the start, Joanna (Keira Knightly), a struggling novelist who earns pocket money penning freelance fashion articles, and Michael (Sam Worthington), a successful commercial realtor, appear happy and well-to-do. On their way to a fancy party, their demeanor in the cab is playful and loving, and then the narrative takes scope. Tadjedin begins cross-cutting their pleasant ride to the party with their unpleasant ride back from the party. “Are we cross-cutting the current time with the ‘last night’ in question?” I thought. No, we are not. Tadjedin’s film is far too clever for that.
Once at the party, Joanna catches Michael sharing a balcony chat with his co-worker, Laura (Eva Mendes). The conversation, which we hear part of, is friendly and fair; no hint of disloyalty is offered. Despite this, Joanna doesn’t like what she sees. When she and Michael return to their SoHo loft that night, a fight ensues.
And when I say “fight,” I mean an extended, grueling exchange that is so real and honest, it’s actually hard to watch. It rivals Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson’s verbal brawl in In The Bedroom (and the evolving screaming match Spacek has with Kevin Costner in JFK, for that matter).
Although they both say regrettable things, when Michael leaves for his two-day work trip to Philadelphia (with Laura and another male co-worker), Joanna feels confident in her trust of him.
Now, I’ve described maybe the first 25 minutes of the film, and it is roughly at this point that Last Night will lose you with its coincidence or completely reel you in. Struck with a wicked bout of writer’s block after Michael leaves, Joanna goes to a local coffee shop and is approached by Alex (Guillaume Canet), an ex lover of hers who has specifically sought her out for his one-day trip to New York.
From here on out, the film jumps between Michael sharing drinks and stories with Laura, and Joanna sharing dinner and dog walks with Alex. Both of their nights begin innocently, but one spoken line here or subtle gesture there, and everything could change.
I liked (or possibly loved) Last Night for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is expertly written by first time writer/director Massy Tadjedin. There are lines that cut right to the heart of things, such as when Michael is asked by Laura if he regrets not making a move on her before. “…not as much as I would’ve regretted it if I had.” Simple yet wholly effective.
Another cause for praise: the acting.
I cannot explain how refreshing it is to see Keira Knightley play a normal, contemporary woman. No pirates, no colonial costumes, no chopped hair; Joanna is an ordinary women faced with everyday problems. This, mind you, could be played tremendously dull. Not in Knightley’s hands. She has a scene near the end of the film when she accidentally lets a tear fall from her face. Her look of shame in letting that tear drop is far to devastating for me to articulate here.
In addition, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Sam Worthington play and everyday everyman. No explosions or giant blue beings, just a normal bloke trying to gauge what’s right. And then there’s Eva Mendes, who constantly tries to make us forget how good of an actress she can be by continually starring in shitty films. Training Day, We Own the Night, Bad Lieutenant, Last Night; she needs to take on more roles like these. Case in point: Laura’s retelling of the one time she was cheated on. Shocking, funny and goddamned heartbreaking.
I’ve seen Guillaume Canet act once before, as a massive son of a bitch in the remarkable Tell No One (which he also directed). But in watching his subtle, nuanced Alex, I cannot imagine why he hasn’t done more work here.
Despite my obvious praise, Last Night isn’t perfect. Aside from the gimmicky plot structure, the film is scored to music that, at times, is far to leading. Not a surprise, given that Clint Mansell is often encouraged to amp up his tunes for Darren Aronofsky’s films. But these are slight quibbles, ones that should in no way dissuade you from watching the film. Last Night is a hidden gem in plain sight (it’s currently on Netflix Instant). Is it time well spent? You bet your ass, and then some. A