The poet Roy Campbell was once famous for having written this little epigram titled “On Some South African Novelists”:
You praise the firm restraint with which they write —
I’m with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where’s the bloody horse?
The lines came immediately to mind when I saw Josh Sternfeld’s Winter Solstice, an independent film which takes as its way of being anti-Hollywood a degree of emotional understatement so great as to make it doubtful if the movie even has a pulse. I yield to no one in my preference for the subtle and the understated over the bombastic and overblown which is far more often to be met with in Hollywood products, but I do think that it is the duty of the filmmaker to give us rather more of a sense of what it is that’s the emotional mainspring of the action than Sternfeld is able to manage in Winter Solstice.
We eventually learn that in the film’s backstory Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia), lost his wife five years ago in a car accident. She had been taking their son, Pete (Mark Webber), to baseball practice, and the fact that Pete, now a high school junior, is “acting out” — as we have been taught these days to put it — is presumably connected to the accident, perhaps on account of guilt feelings. It’s less clear whether Jim’s older son, Gabe (Aaron Stanford), is also affected in ways that have a bearing on his sudden and, to his father, inexplicable decision to move out of the family home in New Jersey to live with a friend in Florida. Gabe seems to have no more idea why he’s doing this than anyone else does. But if in general terms we are prepared to accept that some kind of emotional blight has settled on the lives of the Winters men, we need something more than shots of them looking unhappy and blighted for the film to develop any interest.
Most of it consists of long takes of Jim doing his job as a landscape gardener, or Gabe doing his job — not a very interesting one — in some kind of warehouse, or hanging out with his girlfriend, Stacey (Michelle Monaghan), or Pete playing basketball with his friends. The late Mrs. Winters is hardly mentioned by any of them. If there is any coming to terms with grief going on here, it’s off Mr. Sternfeld’s radar screen. True, Jim confides the basic details of the family’s tragedy in a fraught conversation with a new neighbor, Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney), in the cab of his pickup truck. This is the only way we, the audience, get to hear of what it is that is apparently making all three of the Winterses so mopey and hostile. But Molly has no particular insight or consolation of her own to offer. She seems to belong to the being-there-for-you school of grief counseling. Jim nuzzles her a bit after confiding in her, and then they part.
They may or may not have further meetings, and the possibility is perhaps meant to suggest a ray of hope amidst the prevailing gloom. Even this is pretty tentative, however, as she is only housesitting in the neighborhood and expects to move on. Likewise, Gabe is pretty wishy-washy about his relationship with Stacey. Though they are apparently quite close, he tells her he’s off to Florida without her and then acts surprised when she doesn’t return his calls for a while. Eventually, she sees him at a distance from her bicycle — she and Molly and Jim are all seen on their bicycles, but I haven’t been able to work out the significance of the bicycle motif — and waves to him, so possibly all is forgiven. For whatever that’s worth. Like pretty much everything else in the movie, the gesture takes us nowhere.
Only two other things happen in it. Pete gets in trouble in school and is told he has to go to summer school. His summer-school history teacher (Ron Livingston) says he can have the day off if he can guess why the Mongols turned back instead of invading Europe in 1238. Pete guesses correctly that it was because of the death of their leader. The teacher says this is true but identifies the leader as Genghis Khan, who had died in 1227. The Mongol retreat from Vienna, in any case, happened in 1241 and was on account of the death of Genghis’s son and successor Ogodei or Ogedei. Maybe the teacher knows this, but he gives Pete the day off anyway. It’s possible that that is Pete’s little ray of sunshine, but we’ll never know for sure.
The other thing that happens is that Molly invites all three of the Winterses to dinner. The boys are as reluctant to go as they are to do everything else, but father tells them they must. When they don’t turn up, he puts their mattresses and bedding out on the lawn and makes them sleep there. It’s a nice visual moment, especially when the boys take it in their stride, more or less. Their father’s attempts at discipline and guidance are simply there to be put up with, like their mother’s death. They are woken up the next morning as dad honks his horn on the way out the driveway to work. But you’ve got to think that there’s something missing in a film of which this moment is the highlight. Having done so much to whet our appetites, Mr. Sternfeld should have given us a bit more to chew on.