An astronomical phenomenon causes a moment of inattention; as thought their fate had been in the stars, two people find their lives changed forever. Driving home from a day out at the beach with his family, John Burroughs’ car is struck; when he wakes from his coma to find his young son and pregnant wife died in the accident he sinks into depression and drink. The other driver, Rhoda Williams, is sent to prison for driving under the influence and loses her place at university, and with it her whole future. As she was a minor at the time, her identity is never revealed to the Burroughs family.
This is science fiction only nominally; like many of the best science fiction films of the last decade, Children of Men or The Prestige, there is only a hint of that flavour to set the background upon which the story is told, and the story is about the people. Though not as intense or well-crafted as either of those films, nor does it attempt to be; it is a simple story of redemption and seeking a second chance in life, by offering it to somebody else, and over all this hangs the presence of another Earth.
Superficially reminiscent of another borderline science fiction film released this year, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, this offering is more pleasant and uplifting. While both films centred on a woman with a self-destructive flaw and how their life unravels when a new planetary body comes on close approach to the Earth, the core of Melancholia was Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, selfish, self-indulgent and determined that everyone around her must suffer as much as she.
Brit Marling’s Rhoda is more congenial company in that she is fundamentally a good person. Only once does she give in to pity, offering herself to the elements and the open sky above, but after she is rescued from the snow, she does everything in her power to atone for her mistake while fully aware that she never can. Taking a menial janitorial position at a local school, scrubbing the walls to symbolically clean her conscience, she then seeks out John to offer apology, but instead offers her services as a maid, working unpaid as she helps him rehabilitate.
The brainchild of Marling and director Mike Cahill, who are also both named as producers and writers, with Cahill additionally acting as cinematographer and editor, this is not some overblown vanity project, but is a sensitive observation, with Marling’s excellent performance matched by William Mapother’s John, distraught, detached, then slowly engaging with life as he begins to recover, before his anger tumbles out when Rhoda is forced to reveal her identity.
As befits John’s profession, the soundtrack by Fall On Your Sword is exquisite, focusing mainly on cello and piano, with the addition of Scott Munson’s “musical saw” for John’s unconventional performance.