I want to preface this by saying that I generally cannot stand Abel Ferrara’s cinema, but what he does in this film with equal measures chaotic (at times surreal) narrative style and rhythmic raw depictions of experience just hit all the right notes for me. We loiter in moments that are colored as banal yet emotional, whether sexual intercourse or a walk in the park. These are the truths of the mature self-actualized adult who finds depth and pain, and all of life's offerings, now in the ordinary.
Dafoe is magnetic, meditating on the mysteries of his experience, participating actively with enthusiasm, focusing on a task, accepting ennui, posturing toward existential crises, and considering how to manage his emotions. He practices the principles of his recovery imperfectly, saying one of the wisest statements I’ve heard in cinema very early on, yet struggling like the rest of us to practice the wisdom with ease: “If you’re only doing emotional things that you feel safe with, it’s for you. You’ve got to go beyond yourself… When we do things and forget about ourselves, and we’re just doing that action in a pure way, that’s when we get closer- in a pure way to experiencing the beauty of life.” This could be the definition of his Higher Power in AA. It wouldn't be far off from many others' definitions of "spiritually-fit," or "God-moments."
Addiction is part of Ferrara’s story, and the portrayal of the life of a man in recovery is very subjective to his autobiographical experience but also honest in its universality. Dafoe falls into pockets of resentment or self-indulgence, contests with marital difficulties and issues of powerlessness and domination. He doesn’t suggest the answers to life’s mysteries because he doesn’t have them, nor does he express a crisis in loud movements or theatrical exposition. An instant of dysregulation may not look much different than the look on a father’s face drifting off into space with his daughter in the park, because that’s reality- but Ferrara engages us in a holistic exercise that examines Dafoe and his exchanges with his milieu from every possible angle. The camera glances at body language, movements of characters across a physical space toward another, basks in the beauty of physical human bodies or inanimate spaces just as it does the blankness of things. Meaning becomes the subjective experience, and Ferrara refuses to color these for us. That’s not how life works.
That's not to say that the spiral into delusion doesn't become self-centered in the general sense, or propelled upon us. I'm sure this will draw parallels to the same conversations people love to have over the protagonist in Diary of a Country Priest's own questionable absorption with emulating Christ and looking for sympathy indirectly, but I think that misses the point- at least if left there in a state of viewer-judgment. One might criticize this film as self-obsessive but its self-pity is innately drawn from appropriate wells. The AA shares use the real lingo to deconstruct relationships on topic with the selfish side of the program, which isn’t a ‘bad’ thing. There is a truth in “keeping one’s side of the street clean” and focusing on the self rather than another’s flaws. That egocentricity is healthy, and directly contrasts the toxic masculinity that balks at self-awareness or professes narrow-minded answers. However, Dafoe does not practice a 'perfect program' or live his life harmoniously, just like anyone in or out of recovery, and his fallibility is marked by his own admitted obsessive thinking that "neurotic, dualistic, unrealistic way of thinking only gets us into trouble, but we do it all the time." He says this to himself, but cannot escape himself, and exhibits behavior that wallows in the only perspective we can default to: our own. This is such a subjective account that the stylized jumps in reality, just like the most docu-drama shots, are inherently created by Dafoe, and the filmmaker himself, based on his own neuroses rather than an offensive reality.
If anything, he is most critical of himself, and his impositions of control on others to get on his wavelength (whether his wife or a homeless man on the street), before reverting back to a meditative understanding of powerlessness, is a repetitive process most in recovery will be familiar with. There is a humility present in this introverted diary, which does not alleviate Ferrara/Dafoe of his character defects, but validates the skewed emotions he has while admitting their right-sized value of actual importance. But if he didn't descend into the self, that would be even more disingenuous and inauthentic, and would frankly be even more problematic in sugarcoating the ability to practice what one preaches- and that would be unfairly professing to be Christ. Feeling sorry for yourself and getting outside of yourself to empathize with others, rinse cycle repeat- that's the program. The greatest respect comes as he demonstrates his most intense regression later on, acknowledging that emotional sobriety is not linear like time sober. There is no 'right' and 'wrong' here, there just 'is'- and part of that is amends and going back to the base to contemplate one's actions, accept them, and turn around to commit to betterment and growth in this transient moment, just right now. Because tomorrow, who knows. Easier said than done, and near the end we sense that he may want to give up- but children and dancing are emblems of a higher power that can perhaps restore him to sanity- especially Ferrara's own, in real life.
The late-speech about anger and drawing energy from outside of the 'self' (yet still remaining self-focused), stated by who I imagine is his sponsor, addresses the video I've linked a few times here that summarizes the science behind will power pertaining to life broadly, but based in addiction studies. It also expands upon this idea to become one of the most beautiful truths in film history, finding a complicated web in simple terms. As a person I'm close to, who is a member of this same fellowship, always says: Come at every situation with love and compassion, and things will generally be okay. Ferrara is eerily speaking my language here and ultimately he surprised me the most by making a movie that undoes all the irritating attributes I find in the rest of his work, in committing to the exact opposite attitudes. Yet the fantasy he engages with at the end directly confronts his past cinematic explorations, repurposed as an externalization of his unmanageable emotions and defaults into self-pity, including an image of self-destruction that is equally self-aggrandizing related to Christ! "Egomaniac with an inferiority complex" as they say in the program. I don’t know if I’m ready to call this the greatest film ever made about the recovery aspect of addiction specifically, but if it’s not, it’s damn-near close. It's certainly a rare picture of the complex contradictory nature of humanity, which is a language everyone willing to self-reflect can speak.