Savages, The


The Quiet Ones

Main Cast: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Director: Tamara Jenkins

I suppose all adults carry baggage from their childhoods, good and bad. Some do so loudly, through words or actions, but most do it quietly, simply letting the facts of their upbringings influence their lives as adults. We don’t usually get to see the stories of the quiet ones – it’s the loud, usually brash and harsh, which get the attention. But once in a while, we get the blessedly quiet. The Savages is exactly that – the story of The Quiet Ones and how they cope when their childhood catches up with them as they lead their adult lives.

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, The Savages tells the story of siblings Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Savage. Both are living the proverbial lives of quiet desperation. Jon is a theater professor in Buffalo with a girlfriend to whom he is unwilling to commit and Wendy is a temp. She really wants to be a playwright, but in reality, she’s an office temp with a married boyfriend. Their lives are thrown together when their aging father (Philip Bosco), after many years of absence from their lives, needs them to care for him as he becomes increasingly ill.

There are only small asides scattered throughout the film that indicate that Jon and Wendy were not supplied with anything remotely approaching a happy and supportive childhood environment. The Savages isn’t about their childhood; it isn’t really about their parents, not even the one for whom they are now responsible. It’s about Jon and Wendy and how they have lived their lives while carrying their youthful baggage. And now they need to put it all down and decide how they will care for a parent who gave them very little and now requires a great deal.

The key ingredients in The Savages are the characters of Jon and Wendy and their brilliant portrayals by Hoffman and Linney. Jenkins writes these characters as real people. They do not indulge in over-explanatory catharsis for the sake of clarifying their crappy childhoods for the audience. Instead they simply are who they are and live the way they live. They argue about the merits of different types of care for their increasingly demented father, with Jon being reserved and practical and Wendy being emotional and dramatic. They butt into each others lives, call each others bluffs, and generally behave the way adult siblings often behave – with a hearty dose of assumed intimacy and a reasonable helping of regression.

Hoffman does what he always does – captures his character with heartbreaking creative accuracy. His Jon is basically a regular guy, but he’s also a very somber man. The way he teaches, the way he interacts with his sister and father, the way he approaches his life – all are serious and very apparently lacking in joy. He isn’t unhappy, but he certainly isn’t happy, either. Hoffman takes that stoic exterior and adds to it a layer of emotional vulnerability, evident in a welling eye or a slumped posture, which makes Jon accessible when he could easily come off as cold.

Linney is absolutely delightful as Wendy, with her fabricated drama and flexible morality. It is Wendy who is brought to her knees by caring for her father. She seems to have a need, still, to please this man. Linney gives her an air of hyperactivity that serves to underscore her desperate need to be relevant. In their many scenes together, Linney and Hoffman perfectly represent their characters’ differences while managing to leave a quiet impression of exactly how alike they really are under their respective surfaces. Linney earned a well deserved Oscar nomination for this role.

If The Savages has a weak point, it’s in the pacing. This is not a fast movie; it’s a movie for the patient. A story about lousy dysfunctional childhoods that does not offer bombastic scenes of emotional meltdown might feel slow. I see it more as contemplative. The film gives each character time to be complete, without any false gimmicks to stir our sympathies or inflame our wrath at the injustices served to our main characters. Without the usual cathartic moment where the characters do an emotional info-dump, we’re left to fend for ourselves and simply wait, and watch, and decide on our own what we think of these people and how they’ve dealt with their situation.

In the end, I believe The Savages is exactly what it is meant to be – a full, textured portrayal of The Quiet Ones. I’m glad to see them get their day in such a skilled production. The film will reward you many times over for your patience. Definitely recommended.

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