Director: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Iain Armitage
Some books are so evocative that we "watch" them even as we flip through the pages. We see their world in our mind. There's a physicality to the atmosphere, sounds, personalities, voices, houses, even a background score – a whole feeling that, on future recollection, might leave us confused about whether it was in fact a movie we remember.
Ritesh Batra's films are so unobtrusive that we "read" them even as the scenes unfurl. We sense the prose between the images. We sense the author behind the characters. They are beautifully recited. It's a feeling that, on future recollection, might leave us confused about whether it was in fact a novel we perused through. It's a wonderful feeling – melancholic and quiet and strangely organic, especially for those like me who never quite took to extensive reading.
Some might equate this minimalism to a lack of directorial/visual flair, but I believe there's an art to his restraint – one that extends across cultures to let different stories choose their own environments. There can't be a Ritesh Batra film – just like there can't be an Alexander Payne film – because there can be Ritesh Batra characters.
Our Souls At Night is The Lunchbox director's second consecutive cinematic adaptation after The Sense of an Ending. Together, they could form an anti-grief trilogy of sorts. When I wrote about The Sense of an Ending without having read Julian Barnes' original novel, it did still feel like I was reviewing a filmmaker's interpretation of a storyteller's words. I could sense the translation, and I could detect the simplifying – much of which suggested that the book is a narratively ambitious one.
But writing about this film, I suspect, will also mean writing directly about the late Kent Haruf's final piece of literature. Batra might have perhaps elevated his source material by choosing not to. Because this is a lovely, lovely story – one for the "ages," quite literally. It is simultaneously romantic and reluctant. It is also narratively ambitious, but not with an obvious non-linear ambiguity, but more on an emotionally intrinsic level.
It begins with an ending: a widow (Jane Fonda) asks a widower (Robert Redford) if he would like to sleep with her at night. When they do share a bed, she falls asleep in a jiffy. This sounds like the climax of most courtships: the "happily ever after" part. And the film ends with a midnight phone call – which is usually how most relationships begin. In between there's a kid and a dog, and there is sex and there are first dates – in precisely that order. The kid is the midpoint of a love story in reverse.
But now for some context behind her request: they are longtime neighbours in a remote Colorado town. They simply exist. They are lonely – "you know, to get through the nights," she explains. It's about sleeping next to, and not with, each other. It is a desperate and sad proposal. And a hopeful one. He agrees. They spend their days alone and speak about these days to each other at night. Then they speak about "those" days – their lives and their mistakes and their regrets.
Without a single flashback, it's like watching characters methodically materialize, piece by pixelated piece, before our eyes. They get built a little more with every night. We begin to know why they are the way they are. We know how it goes: awkwardness soon turns into comfort, especially when her grandson visits for the summer. They grow closer. They feel good. They buy him a dog. Again, there's another little reversal: the boy is the one whose life is enriched and made less lonelier, instead of the other way around.
But it's never as simple. He has a history. She has a past. Separate films – sweeping dysfunctional tragedies – can be made on their respective children. And in them, these two sweet oldies would be the villains. They aren't the ones who deserve a gentle book about them, which is exactly why Our Souls At Night is also a profound meditation on morality and fate. "You're a good man," she declares, when he asks why she chose him; yet, it sounds like she is convincing him that they were never bad humans, despite doing some bad things. Growing old resets our moral compass, she means to say.
Whether it's Mumbai, London or Colorado, Batra's protagonists go through the motions in a way that makes anything – a tiffin mix-up, a posthumous letter or a purposeful knock on the door – worth pursuing merely to break the monotony
But they don't think they deserve to be happy. It's why we see the film opening with a classic Batra montage: an old male loner going about his routine. He eats quietly at his dining table, does the crossword and ends the night on a sofa with a beer. Saajan Fernandes afforded himself an evening cigarette in his Bandra balcony in The Lunchbox, while Tony Webster sat in his kitchen with preheated dinners in The Sense of an Ending.
Whether it's Mumbai, London or Colorado, Batra's protagonists go through the motions in a way that makes anything – a tiffin mix-up, a posthumous letter or a purposeful knock on the door – worth pursuing merely to break the monotony. After all, introverts latch on to the prospect of communication far more aggressively than others.
Under his gaze, widowers or divorcees foster a brand of silence that almost feels aspirational; Batra humanizes oldness, world-weariness and the kind of fragile faces we preserve ourselves from because they are closer to death than they are to life. It's almost like they're punishing themselves for something – no television sets, cellphones or human company – that might have made them so reclusive.
Even in this film, it's clear that he isn't very used to conversing, even when he sits with his gossipy set of small-town old-timer pals at a coffee shop every morning. He is a product of many misgivings, and he is so used to being talked about over the years that he is still worried about "what people will say". He comes in through the backdoor every evening, despite her repeatedly telling him to stop caring about what others think. She is clearly the more traveled out of the two. He is clearly the more rooted out of the two.
Louis and Addie are their names. They sound "eternal," don't they? There's a ring to them. Like Carl and Ellie, Oliver and Jenny, Forrest and Jenny, or even the kind of cute, old-school couples who've done a lifer together – the partnership where one would die of a broken heart after the other passes. They sound right together. Except, they didn't die of a broken heart when their partners passed. And maybe they'd like to.
So they meet. Finally.
And they make me hope that – irrespective of who has written my life – Ritesh Batra directs my retirement. He takes sad songs and makes them better. I can't wait to grow old if he is the one calling the shots. Now that would be a nice, soulful way to go.
[Our Souls At Night is now streaming on Netflix. You can stream it here]