Everybody hurts

The morose, human dramas of the '70s make a startling comeback in Secrets & Lies and Heavy

Food plays a crucial role in Heavy, but like the title of the movie itself, it has the added benefit of taking on a secondary meaning. Victor is certainly fat, but he's also burdened--by his dependence on food, on his mother, and on the sameness in his life. Victor's rut is one of competing lusts that are more alike than different. His yearning for a young new cocktail waitress (Liv Tyler) conflicts with his own emotional reclusiveness, symbolized by his obsession with food. As Victor stares at milkshakes with the same longing as he does the cleavage of the grocery clerk, Mangold gives food the metaphoric quality that Big Night wasn't able to create. Every steak, every candy bar, every hot dog brings Victor solace; food is his crutch, his comfort, his friend, his lover, and his menace--a temptress bewitching him with caloric sorcery. It is sensualized, eroticized, and yet somehow insignificant. The repetition of eating is what really has meaning for Victor--the belief that everything will stay the same. Victor's obesity isn't a condition, it's a symptom of his smothering shyness. (A huge woman sitting next to me at the screening brought her greasy, fried dinner into the theater. Three minutes into the movie, she recognized one of the stars. "That's Shelley Winters!" she exclaimed. "Boy she got fat!" The irony appeared lost on her.)

As good as Heavy is, I simply can't imagine the movie working so well without Vince leading the way. This is the antithesis of a star turn--it depends on Victor's virtual invisibility--yet Vince manages to command the film by being so agonizingly in sync with its emotional frequency. Victor could be overplayed to a point where the pathos seemed wrung out of the viewer rather than coaxed. Everyone seems so oblivious to his pain, he could sob uncontrollably in bed, awash in self-pity, but Vince follows a subtler, more canny approach, with eyes like gyroscopes swimming in milky pools of tears too shy to fall; everything he needs to say he says with his eyes.

What's remarkable is how Mangold, who is 32 and has never written and directed a feature film before, can so totally immerse himself, and us, in his full-blown conception of Heavy. With intentionally dreary visual set design and photography and the near-constant white noise on the soundtrack--industrial sounds are almost always audible in the background--Mangold has set up a system of images and motifs that make the film work almost without dialogue. When Victor says, "I just wanted everything to stay the same," the line is superfluous; Mangold has made Victor's emotional paralysis quite plain: Victor's self-destructive obsession with the status quo is exactly what every repeated image until that point (a plate of eggs, a sinkful of dishes, a dog's bowl, the Farrah poster) pointed inexorably toward, and what Victor must eventually free himself from.

If there are any doubts about how Mike Leigh sees his characters, there are none about Mangold. He admires Victor--and everyone he represents--merely for taking the most courageous step possible: finding the strength in the face of the awesome horizon of a miserable existence to keep getting up morning after morning just to go on living in the seemingly vain hope of finding something better. What Mangold and Leigh understand with such lucidity is that in the best film realism, as in life, it's not the destination that matters; it's the searching.

Heavy. CFP Distribution. Pruitt Taylor Vince, Liv Tyler, Shelly Winters, Deborah Harry, Evan Dando, Joe Grifasi. Written and directed by James Mangold. Now playing.

Secrets & Lies. October Films. Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Opens October 11.

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