Gus Van Sant’s Restless (2011), which debuted in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year, fell out of view rather quickly. This may be because while it is certainly much more accessible than Van Sant’s arch-arthouse work like Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), it lacks the mainstream appeal of the director’s Oscar-winning dramas Milk (2008) (which won the Best Actor award for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay in 2009) and Good Will Hunting (1997).
Henry Hopper, son of the late, great Dennis, stars as Enoch, a teenager with a peculiar obsession with mortality. Enoch is friends with Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot, with whom is plays Battleships, and attends the funerals of strangers. At one such memorial service he encounters Annabel (Mia Wasikowska). Annabel, we soon learn, is entering the final stages of terminal cancer, and only has a few months to live. She loves Charles Darwin and the study of nature.
Needless to say, romance blossoms between the two oddballs. While the quirkiness of the couple – or indeed, the whole Restless – will undoubtedly be a turn-off for some, the section of the film that follows their developing relationship is sweet. Hopper makes for a likeable leading man, but Wasikowska really owns the picture; she is fast becoming one of the foremost vanishing acts in contemporary cinema, capable of vanishing seamlessly into the roles she takes.
The film’s quirkiness is undeniable, and it is difficult to justify all of it. Hiroshi’s presence is not grating, but the concept of the ghost kamikaze does seem a bit of a stretch, no matter how thematically relevant it is. There is something about the story which just doesn’t quite seem to fit, and it is difficult to say what that could be – Wasikowska’s lack of visible sickness is certainly a huge debilitating factor.
Restless is a good film, though not a great one. It is so gentle a watch that whenever someone expresses an emotion stronger than vague contentment or slight melancholy it jars slightly. The romance aspect is cute and charming, though it perhaps doesn’t quite satisfactorily express what Jason Lew’s screenplay wanted to say. It’s not so much like attending a stranger’s funeral as watching a film about it.