"Every woman is a universe." These words, spoken about halfway through writer/director Rodrigo Garcia's superb Nine Lives, have considerable resonance by the time this stylized omnibus draws to a close – true to its title, the film explores the lives of nine different women, replete with intersections and coincidences, decisions and reconciliations, beginnings and endings.
Garcia's work bears only the faintest traces of a linear narrative; the vignettes run between 10-12 minutes long and are composed of a single, unbroken Steadicam shot, lending an odd omniscient air to each of the stories. Characters from earlier episodes briefly appear in later ones – time and space are fluid, evoking an estrogen-heavy Short Cuts. Garcia, who cut his directorial teeth on a number of HBO series, including "Six Feet Under," "The Sopranos" and "Carnivale," also helmed the 2000 she-centric film Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her.
Gifted with an obvious skill for crafting believable, engaging roles for women, Nine Lives builds upon the anthologized quintet of tales from Things, featuring several performers (male and female) and almost functioning as a spiritual sequel of sorts. As the film opens, frustrated prisoner Sandra (Elpida Carrillo) lashes out during her daughter's monthly visitation while Diana (Robin Wright Penn) is overwhelmed by a long-ago relationship when she bumps into former flame Damien (Jason Isaacs); nurse Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton) finally summons the courage to confront her stepfather about her emotionally damaging upbringing; Sonia (Holly Hunter) and her boyfriend Martin (Stephen Dillane) are enjoying a quiet evening with their friends Damien (Isaacs) and Lisa (Molly Parker) when Martin shatters the tranquility by sharing an intimate secret.
Samantha (Amanda Seyfreid), a bright teenager, shuttles back and forth, keeping the peace between her invalid father (Ian McShane) and seemingly distant mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek), who is tempted to stray during a rendezvous with Henry, a handsome stranger (Aidan Quinn); Lorna (Amy Brenneman) attempts a reconciliation of sorts with her ex-husband (William Fichtner) at his wife's funeral; Camille (Kathy Baker) spars with her husband (Joe Mantegna) as she prepares to undergo surgery for breast cancer while Maggie (Glenn Close) visits a graveyard with her precocious daughter Maria (Dakota Fanning).
Many of the stories are set at a pitched emotional volume, bringing viewers in close for an often raw examination of dramatic material – Garcia's approach may strike viewers as frustrating, since in some cases, just as things get interesting, he cuts away to another woman's story. Relying upon this episodic structure, he creates little mini-plays that crackle with vitality but also offer a showcase for a healthy selection of outstanding actresses.
Nine Lives could be described as a dour, nihilistic acting exercise, but the quiet, observational truths that power each of the stories suggest there's more at work than simply creating showboat roles for some of Hollywood's great leading ladies – glimmers of hope can be seen at times in "Nine Lives," and despite Garcia's ham-handed attempts in the final vignette to literally draw comparisons to a cat's nine lives, he manages to fashion a sprawling, inventive film that's worth seeking out.
Nine Lives is offered in a clean, relatively sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer – Xavier Perez Grobet's gritty, evocative cinematography is nicely realized with scant defects visible. Overall, a great, film-like image that compliments the visual tone nicely.
Only Dolby Digital 5.1 is offered, which despite the film's penchant for dialogue, manages to feel spacious and enveloping, particularly when it comes to Edward Shearmur's pensive score. Nine Lives won't wow your speakers, but what's presented is a rock solid aural representation. English, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
In lieu of a group commentary track, the Nine Lives supplements instead rely upon a fullscreen Q&A at Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, moderated by David Strasberg and featuring Garcia, Brenneman, Hamilton, Baker and Mantegna. The discussion and Q&A is playable in three parts or all together for an aggregate of 71 minutes. Also on board are four fullscreen featurettes playable separately or all together -the six minute, 50 second "The Women of Nine Lives"; the seven minute, 31 second "Sonia: Blocking a Scene"; the eight minute, 44 second "Working With One Continuous Take" and the four minute, 36 second "Maggie: A Day at the Cemetery." Trailers for The Tenants, Where The Truth Lies, The Dying Gaul, London, Sueno, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Saint Ralph, Junebug, Thumbsucker and Saraband are also on board.
Nine Lives could be described as a dour, nihilistic acting exercise, but the quiet, observational truths that power each of the stories suggest there's more at work than simply creating showboat roles for some of Hollywood's great leading ladies. Highly recommended.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.