Intensely personal films can be extremely difficult for the viewer to filter. Whenever a writer or director chooses to tell a literal tale of deep personal significance, it tends to either alienate or endear its potential audience. Moreover, such films are often so very personal that they run the risk - often calculated - of creating an environment that is uncomfortably voyeuristic (by virtue of subject matter and the closing of any intellectual or dramatic distance between the psyche of the director/writer and the viewer). Emotional responses are virtually unavoidable due to the work's immediacy and identification is usually necessary to its success; however, abject rejection is also prone to occur if the crucial tether to the material, for whatever reason, is simply not made or sustained. Things Behind the Sun, the Peabody Award-winning feature co-written and directed by Allison Anders (Border Radio, Gas Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca), is an excellent example of both the triumphs and shortcomings of such a style of filmmaking. The film deals with the vile act of rape and examines its long-term psychological aftermath, not only for the woman who experienced it directly, but also for those that are within her orbit, even tangentially. The fact that this film is based upon (loosely) Ms. Anders' own experience of being gang-raped while in high school renders the events on screen even more uncomfortable and disquieting than they inherently are.
Sherry McGrale (Kim Dickens) is arrested at the film's opening for drunk and disorderly behavior in what appears to be a ritual of sorts – on the same day, for three consecutive years, she has shown up on the front lawn of the same house in a stupor, flailing and crying, much to the bewilderment of the current owner (Elizabeth Peña). She is bailed out by Chuck (Don Cheadle, who was nominated for an Emmy for his typically excellent work here), who acts (and sees himself) as a protector who tries to keep a watchful eye over her. After bringing Sherry back to his home (and her promising to not drink), she quickly ferrets out a bottle Chuck has stashed in his trailer, drinks it with a punishing eagerness, and passes out. Upon returning home from work, Chuck decides that Sherry can no longer stay with him while she is in such a state and demands that she leave. One gets the feeling that this pattern has played itself out many times before.
Sherry is also the singer in a fledgling rock band that tours the local circuit and has released a single in which she pointedly alludes to her rape (á la Tori Amos' "Me and a Gun"). This draws the attention of a journalist named Owen Richardson (Gabriel Mann), who writes for a small-time periodical called "Vinyl Fetish" in Los Angeles. Through a series of flashbacks, we soon realize that Owen and Sherry attended school together and were beginning to develop a sweet, adolescent relationship. We also learn that Owen was somehow involved in the rape itself. Perplexed by the song, and obviously struggling with issues of his own (we see that Owen is sexually impotent), Owen convinces his boss (Rosanna Arquette) that he should travel to Florida from L.A. to interview Sherry for a feature story as he claims to know the rapist personally. Cloaking his own agenda to his peers (note that he wears rosary beads as a necklace), Owen acts as the catalyst for a dark, painful journey that is about to be thrust to the surface.
Meanwhile, Sherry continues her wayward, uneasy path through life, going through the court-mandated motions of attending thirty A.A. meetings in thirty days while still drinking hard and engaging in extremely risky sexual encounters (in one of the film's most uncomfortable scenes, she has a tryst with two men, demanding that one hold her arms back while the other attempts to consummate the implied promise of the evening). Owen, en route to meet Sherry, decides to visit his brother Dan (Eric Stoltz), who is incarcerated. Dan is unsavory (to put it mildly), entirely unapologetic, and utterly in denial as to his past behaviors and their implications (Dan refuses to even acknowledge the idea of rape, and it becomes clearer as to what exactly transpired on that pivotal day with Sherry). When Owen finally meets up with Sherry in Cocoa Beach, she appears to not view him as anything other than an interested journalist – she does not (at least initially) seem to remember him, nor their shared, sweet past prior to the violence inflicted. She discusses her rape briefly with him, including the fact that she was rendered sterile by pelvic inflammatory disease (PID); however, as Owen keeps talking about it, Sherry's resistance rises commensurately. As additional revelations rise to the fore, Sherry and Owen begin to further explore the events of the past (that remain intensely in the present), both individually and together. Chuck, sensing the turmoil that the journalist's visit is bringing, tries to keep Owen at bay in order to protect Sherry from any more pain, but once this level of realization has begun - and denial begins to erode - it proves impossible to stop.
Video: Things Behind the Sun is presented in a full-frame format (1.33:1), which, to my understanding, was not its original aspect ratio. Captured on digital video, the transfer only adds to its rather aggressive graininess, especially during the flashback sequences, which often appear pixelated and blurry (it is obvious that these scenes were intentionally shot in a darkened, visually subdued style, but the transfer affords no favors). Although directed in a straightforward manner that does not call attention to itself, the problematic transfer does distract at times. I do not know what Showtime had to deal with in terms of the original elements, but the presentation is disappointing.
Audio: For a film that features an effective score by indie legends Sonic Youth, as well as some choice pop selections (especially the Left Banke's "Walk Away Rene," Charlie Rich's "The Most Beautiful Girl," and a cover of the Smiths' "Back to the Old House") the DD 2.0 is ultimately adequate. Dialogue is at times somewhat hard to hear, but generally the audio is presented in a yeoman-like manner. The music, however, sounds great.
Extras: Showtime is to be congratulated for giving this release a host of interesting, worthwhile extras. There is a feature-length commentary with Anders, co-writer Kurt Voss, and producer Daniel Hassid. They adopt a conversational tone throughout, and have some interesting things to say about the location shooting in Florida, very near to where Ms. Anders grew up and was attacked. This was clearly a labor of love, and the commentary reflects it admirably.
Also on board is a series of brief interviews: a twelve minute interview with Allison Anders, wherein she discusses topics ranging from her decision regarding the sale of the film to cable or a theatrical distributor; why and how (for very personal reasons) the music used was chosen; how her daughter Tiffany Anders was asked to write some original songs; and, touchingly, the unabashed joy of a Mother in being told by her daughter that she had difficulty composing works about rape since she had never encountered it directly. There are also brief interviews with actress Brittany Finamore (2:00, who plays the young Sherry); Eric Stoltz (2:20); and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (7:30), who describe what it was like scoring the feature (and what their ideas are concerning scoring in general), and how they had come to know Ms. Anders in the first place. There is also some audition footage with Kim Dickens (Sherry), Gabriel Mann (Owen), and the two together.
Special mention should be made of the Weblinks and Booklist included. Things Behind the Sun includes recommended reading for anyone interested in the subjects raised by the film (especially for those most directly impacted), and valuable links to online resources such as www.rainn.org (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). Kudos for Showtime, et al., for having the foresight to include this information.
Final Thoughts: As noted above, this brand of filmmaking can be incredibly difficult terrain for a viewer to traverse. Things Behind the Sun possesses many noteworthy virtues: the unflinching, clear-eyed portrayal of rape and its myriad consequences; the knowing use of defensive psychological mechanisms and their importance to the parties affected; the fact that the film's compassion extends beyond the confines of the survivor herself; the potentially complicated adult sexuality of childhood rape survivors; the absolute need for catharsis and ultimately resolution (if at all possible); and, lastly, the sense of both individual and larger purpose inherently involved in a project such as this.
However, I was struck equally by its shortcomings: the awkward contrivances of the plot, as well as the expediency in which certain issues were handled (post traumatic stress disorder is mentioned in a movie-of-the-week sort of manner, and the script suffers on other occasions from similarly forced dialogue; Chuck's role as protector, especially that of a male protector, could have been mined for more psychological insight; aspects of the resolution were too pat). Certainly powerful, generally very well acted, and guided by motivations beyond any sort of reproach, Things Behind the Sun is unfortunately stilted (somewhat) by its less-than-credible narrative and at times cursory exposition. For a film that is in many ways completely fearless, it does regrettably hedge a few of its own bets.
Misgivings aside, Things Behind the Sun is also a brave, laudable work, handling extremely powerful subject matter with intelligence, empathy, and compassion not often found in current American cinema. That the film may prove more valuable to some - and operate on a deeper, more resonant level - than a mere "movie" attests to its overall power.