Thursday, April 11, 2013

Anthology Breakdown: Nine Lives

The concept of criminally under seen Nine Lives is a gimmicky one, but executed to understated perfection. The film is comprised of nine brief segments, each staring a woman suffering through an emotional, physical, and/or philosophical crisis. Each episode lasts for roughly 12 minutes and takes place in one single shot. The vignettes were all captured in just one day of shooting (with one preceding full day of rehearsal). No special effects, no digital trickery, just solid acting and great storytelling.

Nine Lives was written and directed by Rodrigo García, who crafted other anthology films like Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Ten Tiny Love Stories, and the segmented, masterful HBO show, In Treatment. Nine Lives is the finest film he’s made yet, and there are plenty more reasons than nine as to why.

We meet Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo) as she’s solemnly mopping the floor of a county jail, where’s she been imprisoned for the past four months. She gets randomly harassed by other prisoners, bribed by guards, and, finally, treated with respect by an elderly inmate (respect, it must be said, that Sandra couldn’t care less about). We never find out why Sandra is in jail this time (it appears it isn’t her first stint), but when a faulty telephone prevents her from speaking to her visiting daughter, Sandra’s sudden, explosive temper tells us pretty much everything we need to know. B

Late one evening, Diana (Robin Wright) slowly shops for groceries in a small neighborhood store. After a few minutes in isolation, she spots a man from afar, immediately altering her relaxed mood. She pounders whether to leave the store or let herself be seen. Soon after choosing the latter, a smiling Damian (Jason Isaacs, never better) approaches her and we come to understand that they are former lovers who have not seen each other in quite some time. The camera slowly pans back to reveal Diana’s very pregnant stomach, and from there, the segment evolves and becomes more layered with each passing minute. They smile, they cry, they anguish and they regret. You never really know what the other one is going to do, but somehow, you know exactly what they’re thinking. A perfect encapsulation of how under the right circumstances at the right moment in time, an entire life can change. A+

Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton) returns to her childhood home in a frenzied, infuriated state. Holly’s teenage sister, Vanessa, lets her inside, where Holly walks around and reminisces about the horrors they suffered at the hands of their parents. She walks outside, plays on her childhood swing, and tells Vanessa to call their father, who Holly hasn’t spoken to in years and get him to come home. In the minutes before their father arrives, Holly grows increasingly angry, and eventually breaks down when she attempts to walk into her old bedroom (where we suspect many bad acts once occurred). The title character’s reaction upon seeing her father will undoubtedly leave you just as rattled as she is. A-

The best segments in Nine Lives are great because they are able to evolve so perfectly within their limited time frame. For instance, when we meet Sonia (Holly Hunter) and her boyfriend Martin (Stephen Dillane), we gather very quickly that he’s an amusingly cranky Brit who rarely comes out of his slump, despite his kind girlfriend’s best efforts. And once they arrive at their friend’s new home, things get very dark, very quickly. Initial amusement rapidly turns to bile, resulting in a shockingly heartbreaking conclusion. Hunter, it must be said, is at the top of her game here. She kills this performance on a number of levels. A

The weakest of the film’s segments follows Samantha (Amanda Seyfriend) around her house as she tends to the needs of her parents. Problem is, her wheelchair-bound father (Ian McShane) only wants to know what Samantha’s mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is saying about him. And visa versa. Samantha talks cordially to her father, then wanders to the next room and (curiously) talks to her mother like shit. Back and forth, back and forth. Aside from García’s ability to bathe his scenes in truth, there isn’t much more to discuss concerning this segment. Everyone performs well, but it feels like filler. C

Another flawless vignette shows the nervous Lorna (Amy Brenneman, never better), timidly attending the funeral of her ex husband’s second wife. Lorna approaches her deaf ex, Andrew (William Fichtner, never better), issues her condolences, and attempts to leave peacefully. But Andrew chases after her, locks them in a secluded room, and explains how he has always longed for Lorna sexually. Fichtner’s desperation, mixed with Brenneman’s earnest confusion, makes this segment one of the most memorable in the film. Most every scene in Nine Lives purposefully ends when the action is at its peak. Basically, you’re always left wanting more. This one is different, in the best possible way. A+

Many of the film’s segments cast the same characters in multiple vignettes, as a way of loosely connecting all of stories. The most obvious such casting is in this scene, in which Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and her drunken, jovial lover, Henry (Aidan Quinn) check into a motel for a late night tryst. The two talk, they drink, and they do their best to shelter their respective life sorrows. Toward the end of the segment, Ruth sees Sandra (from segment one) being escorted out of a hotel room by two policemen, which begs the question, how far are the sequences in Nine Lives spaced apart? Sadly, that’s about all Ruth’s segment does to benefit the film. C+

There’s a certain ease to García’s writing that could, in weaker hands, fall deadly flat. He can, for instance, turn a seemingly innocent exchange of a loving husband caring for this ailing wife, into something of truly authentic devotion.

“What’d you say,” Richard (Joe Mantegna) says at one point.
“About what,” Camille (Kathy Baker) responds.
“You said something.”
“I know.”
“You know what?”
“I know I said something.”
“Well what was it that you said?”
“About what?”
“About what you said.”

Camille is resting on a hospital bed, moments away from having breast cancer surgery, but all she can think to do is hazily bicker with her husband. It’s simple, tender, and actually rather beautiful. B+

While having a picnic in a cemetery, Maggie (Glenn Close, who was recently directed to an Oscar nomination via García’s Albert Nobbs) shares with her daughter Maria (Dakota Fanning) lessons of love, loss and regret. They run, they jump, they play, and they relax. And then they think. And then they understand. It’d be foolish to give away more, because if any segment from Nine Lives is best discovered on your own, Maggie’s is certainly it. A

Previous installments of Anthology Breakdown include:


  1. Wow, that's an excellent review. I've heard about this film but had never seen it as there's another film of the same name but it features... ugh... Paris Hilton.

    1. Thanks man. It really is a solid film, and definitely NOT featuring Paris Hilton.

  2. Great review! I love that you broke it down like this. I've walked past this DVD so many times at the video store, and I almost rent it, then I find something else. I'll have to actually watch it next time I come across it.

    1. Thanks Brittani! Well hey, the fact that you're able to even find it is a step in the right direction. I highly recommend that you pick it up soon!

  3. Wait...Ian McShane? Stephen Dillane? And I've never heard of that one? Adding to my watchlist!

    1. It has never gained a wide audience, which is such a shame. Hope you like it!

      (PS, Dillane is a perfect asshole in this movie. Such a dick.)

    2. Oh, no worries. He currently plays this guy in Game of Thrones that is book fans favorite but I don't see what's so great about him. But Stephen's charisma certainly warmed me up to his character.

      I'll try to see it this weekend!

    3. Ah gotcha. I swear to God I'm going to watch that entire show soon. I must check it out.

    4. Awesome! I know you don't like fantasy genre but most of the show are intrigues and schemes and the acting is really amazing.

    5. That's what I keep hearing. I'm gonna have some free time soon, so that will be the perfect opportunity to watch it.

  4. This movie is currently at the top of my Netflix Instant queue. I'll come back and read this post after I've seen it.

  5. Great stuff! That gimmick (production-wise) is remarkable. I'll try to watch it soon, and I'm thrilled that most of the segments are worth it. This definitely looks like an improvement over some of the other anthologies you've covered, in terms of consistent quality at least.

    1. You know, I thought the same thing while I was writing this, that Nine Lives might be the most consistent I've covered yet. Sure, there are a few weaker segments, but by and large, this movie is damn solid.

  6. Thanks for featuring Nine Lives, Alex! It was so unique how each segment was one shot and cut off at the height of drama.

    What I loved most about this film was that the feature characters had layers. Although we met each woman at a particular point in her life, we were given hints of past love, pain, difficult decisions and mistakes. Many movies feature static uncomplicated (uninteresting) female characters. I relate better to the layers.

    I was wondering if the the title "Nine Lives" reflected we each lead many "lives" within a single lifetime. Maybe it's a stretch, but that's where my head went seeing this film.

    1. Thank YOU for reading! Interesting take on the title, I've always had a more basic approach to it: nine shorts, nine women, nine lives. But who knows.

      I completely agree that many, many female characters in films are under developed. Layers are the best, and García seriously knows how to write for women.