Nathan Silver’s “Stinking Heaven” runs for a svelte 70 minutes of screen time because it might have become emotionally unbearable if it lasted any longer. Though it’s small scale and lo-fi, it’s a cinematic bulldozer, running over you like the turns of extremely loose plot run over its characters. It is another in Nathan Silver’s string of impressive improvisational feature films made on miniscule budgets with generally no-name casts. This one, however, he does not shoot on digital but on Betacam, an effect meant to mirror the time and place, New Jersey in 1990. It sounds gimmicky, granted, but the gimmick is no less effective, particularly given the setting, a commune in Passaic where a group of addicts – drugs, alcohol, otherwise – have gathered in an attempt to come together to stay off what ails them. The movie on video emits a distinct vibe of any home video that surfaces after some sort of commune of one kind or another busts up and leaves people to examine it in attempt to decipher what it was, what it meant and where it went wrong.
No single character could be defined as the principal protagonist since it very much is about the group, since that’s how they define themselves, and so Silver, who wrote no screenplay, preferring to let the actors noodle within scenes and bring ideas to them, just roams from story to story. He goes to no great lengths to establish who’s who or what’s what, preferring instead to let it rise intrinsically from the goings-on. The nondescript home where much of the film is set belongs to Jim (Keith Poulson) and Lucy (Deragh Campbell), married ex-junkies and now overseers of this collective. How precisely this group came to be is, in keeping with the film’s narrative style, never established. We simply enter midstream – literally, in fact, given that aside from a quick impressionistic prologue the film opens in the midst of a wedding at the commune between Kevin (Henri Douvry) and his much younger bride Betty (Eleonore Hendricks). But even if it is not age-inappropriate, this is presented as inconsequential, swiftly demonstrating the alternate lifestyle.
It’s a weird lifestyle, to be sure, in which Jim and Lucy fancy themselves psychologists, though their methods and requests seem based more on by-the-seat-of-their-pants quackery. Everyone goes along with it, though, if only because their desperation for something to glom onto is palpable.
The dynamic turns, as it must, when Betty’s ex, Ann (Hannah Gross), is granted entry against Betty’s wishes. Her arrival lays the groundwork for all sorts of fissures.
The acting here can be as rough as it is raw, but Gross, who has a handful of prior acting credits, is the one who really does something, utilizing her face - indifferent, caustic and comical - to fine effect. What she thinks of all she’s made to witness, whether she takes any of this seriously, what her true motivation for being here is, we guess at but never quite know. She’s secretive and possessive and works as a mirror upon which every other house guest is made to realize for that as open and flowery and la-di-da as they seem to think they’re being, they’re not.
Not everything ends well, as you might imagine, and some who had found a clean lifestyle fall off the wagon. Yet “Stinking Heaven” comes by its ultimate cynicism rather honestly. For all the hard to watch aspects, there is sporadic beauty that creeps out, not simply in the authentically heartfelt moments but even in those built on grand absurdity. There is a moment when one member of the collective pounds away on his acoustic guitar, initially evoking a painfully saccharine college dormitory sensation, before it keeps going and going and pulls you in. These people have pain, and if this is what it takes to (try and) wash it away, so be it.
There are similarities to this year’s “Heaven Knows What”, an exceptionally grueling and gritty indie about the lives of junkies. That film, however, firmly of the hard-to-watch variety, deliberately wallowed in the blackest black, determined to convey the brutal nature of such an existence. “Stinking Heaven”, on the other hand, is filled with characters desperate for some kind of hope to hold onto; it’s just that the place they come to find that hope eventually reveals itself as a mirage.
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