Gus Van Sant has been known to deviate between the experimental and the mainstream during his career, but for every Milk or Good Will Hunting, there is a film such as Restless, which employs many of the director’s strengths but somehow seems to organise them into something twee and unappealing.
In this film of morbid echoes, the couple in question mirror that of Harold And Maude, as the film’s protagonist, preoccupied and haunted by death, meets a girl who only has three months to live. Earnest male leads have had a little bit of a resurgence of late, with The Art Of Getting By and Submarine both employing detached teenage boys and presenting their characters with the challenges of love and companionship.
The strength of Restless, then, lies with Mia Wasikowska, who offers up an attractive version of the usual quirky girl, reintroducing the object of her affection to the joys and beauty of life. The same narrative trajectory has been better used in Garden State or even, heaven forbid, A Walk To Remember, so this film offers little in the way of surprises. Enoch (Henry Hopper) and Annabel are as off-the-wall as each other, and this dynamic works surprisingly well through most of the film.
Although Enoch is presented as a largely irredeemable human being with emotional baggage that couldn’t be shifted with a bulldozer, a balance is reached when Hopper is joined by Wasikowska, an actress who is starting to prove her substantial talents away from Alice and her wonderland.
Less tolerable is the relationship he shares with ghost friend Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), a kamikaze pilot he spends his free time playing endless games of battleship with. We’re never told whether Hiroshi is a figment of Enoch’s imagination or a real ghost brought about by a near death experience, and it’s a narrative thread not easily ignored come the film’s corny final scenes.
At one point Enoch admits to making his spectral friend up in order to hide his doubts of an afterlife, but before and after this moment of near-poignancy Hiroshi is present and correct, suggesting nothing other than a face-value ghost there to guide Enoch through his difficult experiences. And this reflects the rest of the film in its disappointing simplicity.
Although the chemistry of the two leads just about keeps it afloat, nothing they do seems real or of any consequence. For a film like this, we’re aware that the plot cannot be as simple as it’s presented to us, and the audience will constantly, frustratingly, be waiting for the other shoe to drop. The fact that it doesn’t, opting instead for a conventional third act that undoes everything original about the previous two, just underlines how muddled the film’s themes actually are.
The overriding point of the film seems to be the journey of Enoch back to the living, but with Wasikowska the more compelling of the two, you may be reluctant to deviate from her story. Moments spent with her sister Elizabeth are infinitely more watchable than those parallels of Enoch with his aunt, for example, and it’s often a wrench to spend so much time with the moody, death-obsessed half of the couple.
There’s not much inkling as to how the traumatic events of the film would make Enoch a more rounded and better person, but we certainly never see it on screen. And, although Annabel is indeed a likable character, she is never allowed to be relatable. The very nature of her terminal cancer is either ignored or referred to as a distant friend, something that she has witnessed rather than something she is going through.
Her good health and ability to do pretty much anything in her final days adds to the whimsical nature of the entire film, but removes any semblance of reality from the lives we are watching unfold. The harsh realities of life are kept under wraps, and this disallows any connection with the incoherent parts of the characters actually shown to them. And that’s what Restless leaves you with: chalk outlines of people, but never what’s inside.