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Critical Strength: The Glorious Debut of Kent Jones’s ‘Diane’

The film-critic-turned-filmmaker has made an extraordinary first feature with a stunning performance from Mary Kay Place at its center

Mary Kay Place in ‘Diane’ IFC Films/Ringer illustration

As the title character of Kent Jones’s new film Diane, Mary Kay Place is all apologies. Her first line is “I’m sorry,” and hardly a scene goes by where she doesn’t evince a guilty conscience, regardless of whether she’s done something wrong, which, for the record, she hasn’t—or not for a while, anyway. A 70-year-old widow whose rock-solid self-sufficiency gives her plenty of time to dote on those around her, Diane is, on the surface, a model of kindness and constancy. Still, she’s haunted by past transgressions that define her inner world in stark contrast to her pillar-of-the-community persona. Of all the questions raised in this thoughtful and complex drama, the one that resonates most is whether actions matter more than their motivations. Does it mean any less to be constantly doing good if the reasons for it has to do with feeling bad?

Exactly what Diane has to be so upset about, and how culpable she is in her own internalized self-loathing, is left mysterious for most of Jones’s movie. One of the strongest things about the film’s script—Jones’s first solo feature screenwriting credit—is that when the revelations come, they are devastating but also, in their way, unremarkable. The emotional impact of what is eventually exhumed in Diane is tied to the specificity of the characters and their relationships rather than to an explicitly melodramatic set of circumstances; to borrow an analogy from Jones’s own film critical toolkit, the feelings are blended into the action rather than imposed from without.

I’m a great admirer of Jones’s criticism. In print, his anthology Physical Evidence, which includes essays on Wong Kar-wai, John Carpenter, Claire Denis, and other great directors, is indispensable. In documentary form, 2007’s Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a study of the great 1940s B-movie producer narrated by Martin Scorsese (whom Jones also worked with on nonfiction films about Italian cinema and Elia Kazan) is a model of both critical biography and scholarly analysis. The history of critics making forays into filmmaking is long and Jones is nothing if not self-aware about it: 2015’s Hitchcock/Truffaut, which used a series of published interviews between the Master of Suspense and the New Wave whiz kid as a jumping-off point to look at both of their oeuvres with the help of talking heads like David Fincher, James Gray, and Richard Linklater, is partially about Truffaut’s anxiety of influence in the company of his idol. As a critic, Jones is receptive to filmmakers who find ways to spring surprises on the audience instead of playing to expectations, and the way that Diane mutates, slowly but unmistakably, from a strictly realistic, observational drama to something more free-form and abstract shows him walking the walk after years of talking the talk.

When Diane premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, the bulk of the critical praise was directed toward Place, and rightly so; while the actress has worked steadily since her early supporting roles in keynote New Hollywood movies like Bound for Glory and New York, New York and her superb turn in The Big Chill—where she contributed the last flamboyant and most believably modulated performance in a starry ensemble—she hasn’t really been given a proper showcase. And yet while Place is on screen in nearly every moment of Diane, I’d say that one of Jones’s real achievements here is finding and cultivating space for a number of excellent older female performers, all of whom do precise, inspired work: Andrea Martin as Diane’s protective best friend Bobbie; Estelle Parsons (an Oscar winner over 50 years ago for Bonnie and Clyde) as her tersely funny Aunt Mary; and, most remarkable of all, Deirdre O’Connell as her cousin Donna, in the final stages of a battle with cancer and as grateful for Diane’s daily companionship as she is unreceptive to her pity.

The fraught but loving dynamic between Diane and Donna—who Diane is apologizing to in the first scene—is one of two major plotlines that keeps Jones’s film moving; the other is Diane’s hugely dysfunctional relationship with her adult son Brian (Jake Lacy), a drug addict on the verge of premature ruin. Here, Jones is operating perilously close to the realm of junkie cliché, and avoids it due in large part to Lacy’s acting, which tends toward understatement even when the character is raging at his mother; despite some slightly sketchy writing, Lacy climbs inside the mind-set of denial and etches something memorable. The more we learn about Brian’s struggles and Diane’s inability, at once understandable and tragic, to look after him, the more her near-pathological insistence on playing helpmate to her extended family and community makes sense. But the psychological calculus is even more on point—and more unsettling—when Brian comes out the other end of his addiction and finds religion: A scene where Diane loses her cool at her son’s repeated entreaties to get “saved” boils over not just due to her annoyance at the religious hard sell but because she’s related to her son as a fuck-up for so long that she can’t handle the idea that he’s gotten himself together off of her watch.

It’s such moments of behavioral acuity that establish Jones as a perceptive dramatist, and while his direction is more self-effacing than you might expect for somebody so attuned to the artistry of muscular auteurs like David Fincher or Lucrecia Martel (or the Coen brothers, whom he analyzed in a brilliant Film Comment essay that was hugely influential on my own book), he has some effective visual ideas as well. In Diane’s second half, Jones and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield offer repeated variations on a point-of-view shot captured from the front seat of a moving car, hurtling forward down the highway toward the horizon. In realistic terms, these images correspond to Diane’s back-and-forth travels through upstate New York on her various visitations, but they also speak to a sense of momentum that eventually overtakes guilt as the movie’s true subject—the feeling of getting inexorably closer to something and letting what’s behind you fall away in the process.

Without venturing into spoiler territory—and I’m not sure a movie like Diane can be spoiled in the same way as, say, Us—that “something” is death. Jones’s movie has nothing in common tonally or stylistically with the Coens’ recent The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, yet it’s also every inch a meditation on mortality, angled away from genre and mythmaking but similarly philosophical at its core. What begins as a story about a woman trying her best to keep other people comfortable and happy as a salve for her own pain goes on to show her becoming increasingly isolated, not in spite of her selflessness or because of it, but simply as a matter of life (her own, which keeps going on) and death (which keeps taking those around her). The juxtaposition of Diane’s purposeful, even ferocious sense of resolve and the indifference of the larger world to her efforts might strike some viewers as bleak, but Jones isn’t remotely a nihilist. Instead, he’s wrestling with something so large and overpowering—the realization that life is a fragile, finite thing—that many artists try to master it by turning it into dark comedy (the Coen approach) or else drench the issue in sentimentality. Jones takes another route along a trajectory that’s no less particular for being universal, and vice versa. If the overall effect of this tender yet unsparing movie is a bit depressive, it’s nothing its maker should apologize for.