A Home at the End of the World (2004)

Director: Michael Mayer

By Marilyn Ferdinand

At 200 and a half, the United States that was founded with hope and idealism by independent thinkers and adventurers in a land rich with human and natural resources is just about gone. Convulsing through two extremely violent centuries, overtaken by corporate and ideological extremists, and plunging through its second Depression in less than a century, even the small hopes pinned on the historic election of a multiracial president can’t flush the toxins out of our system in time to save us. A Home at the End of the World, by its very title, content, and the timing of its release, suggests an elegy for the vigor and promise of America.

The story begins in Cleveland in 1967, the year that gave us the Summer of Love and a resurgence of idealism and independent thinking that we can look back on now as the Indian Summer of the fast-to-winter American Dream. Nine-year-old Bobby Morrow (Andrew Chalmers) is awakened by some moans coming from his brother Carlton’s (Ryan Donowho) room. He walks in and stands wide-eyed and frozen as he watches Carlton’s naked girlfriend Emily (Asia Vieira) ride a blissed-out Carlton to a certain climax, that is, until she notices Bobby and hastily dresses and climbs out Carlton’s window. Carlton asks Bobby if he is freaked out. “No…a little.” Don’t worry, Carlton reassures him. It’s just love, the most natural thing in the world.

Bobby worships and trusts Carlton, accepting a hit of window pane from him as they hop their fence to Carlton’s favorite spot in the cemetery next door and listening to him expound upon how alike and present the living and the dead are. One evening, Bobby’s hero-worship is put to the test when Carlton tells him not to be such an asshole by hanging around at their parents’ party. Angered, Bobby runs upstairs. Carlton follows him and tells him that their parents need some adult time. Placated but unwilling to be left out, Bobby sneaks down to the party and hides near the patio doors to watch his brother climb on the fence between the graveyard and their yard and then jump down and run back to the party, not noticing that the glass door has been closed. He smashes through it, pulls a piece of glass out of his neck, and bleeds to death on the living room floor.

The film skips ahead seven years. Bobby (Erik Smith) has taken up his brother’s hippie mantle and, quite at random, invites Jonathan Glover (Harris Allan) to leave school to smoke a joint with him. When Jonathan first brings Bobby home, his mother Alice (Sissy Spacek) says a shocked “I’m sorry,” on learning that Bobby’s mother has died the year before. “Why?” Bobby asks, not understanding why she feels personally responsible. “I’m sorry…in a general way…for your loss.” Still uncomprehending, but accepting, Bobby simply compliments her on the bread she’s baked and chows down unself-consciously. Bobby and Jonathan become fast friends, jerking each other off during a sleepover in a shy, sweet scene. When tragedy strikes Bobby again—the death of his father—the Glovers take him in.

The film shifts nine years. Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) has made good on his promise to leave Cleveland as soon as he can and is living in New York City. Ned Glover (Matt Frewer) has developed respiratory problems, and he and Alice are moving to Arizona. When Bobby (Colin Farrell) asks what he’s supposed to do, Alice gently pushes him out of the nest: “You’re 24. You should be out living your own life.” Like a homing pigeon, Bobby lands on Jonathan’s doorstep. A love triangle soon forms as Clare (Robin Wright Penn), Jonathan’s “fashion-forward” roommate, tenderly takes Bobby’s virginity in her quest to get pregnant and ends up falling for him, only to realize later, after they’ve all moved to a house in Woodstock, that Bobby is the love of Jonathan’s life and, perhaps, the feeling is mutual.

Adapted by Michael Cunningham (The Hours) from his own novel, the film makes a necessarily truncated, but nonetheless novelistic survey of the times of its principal characters. Jonathan was a fortunate teen to find an accepting boy with whom to explore his homosexuality, and he does not hesitate to explore the gay free love movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Clare is afflicted with Pretty in Pink syndrome—quirky clothing and design sense abetted not by poverty (she has a trust fund), but by a desire to escape her proper Philadelphia roots and be artistic.

Bobby, however, is stuck in the past, and not even his past, but rather his brother’s. His one overt passion is rock music, and he is awed that Clare was at Woodstock. (“What was it like?” he asks with starry-eyed enthusiasm. “Muddy,” is her—and the standard—reply.) Bobby, having lost his own nuclear family and internalized the hippie sense of family—one created among friends through mutual love—slips easily into any situation, an ability Clare comments on with a mixture of envy and disapproval. While Clare and Jonathan run from tradition, it is the lack of a centering principle in their ’80s philosophy of life that sends them plunging right back, as they find themselves unwilling to share Bobby. In the end, Bobby is truest to the memory of what his brother meant to him and the long-ago vision he had while tripping that everything is connected, both living and dead.

It’s hard to know where to start praising the many fine performances in this film. Sissy Spacek is a marvel as the kind of housewife The Feminine Mystique described—accepting her role as wife and mother and then surprising her incredulous son by accepting a joint from Bobby and dancing with him to Laura Nyro. The moment she decides to do so is an acting lesson in itself, asserting that she’s Jonathan’s mother and then letting her reserve melt when a very sincere Bobby, played with a beautiful wistfulness by Erik Smith, says she’s more than that, acknowledging her personhood. Alice suggests to Clare when they finally meet that her arrangement with the two men is a better way to go; she won’t be stuck one day wondering why she spent her life doing laundry.

Wright Penn has a difficult job of suggesting a faux bohemian. It’s a thankless role, and she never quite overcomes its fey aspects. Her declaration that she was so in love with Jonathan comes a little out of nowhere and relies more on the audience’s knowledge of fag haggery than on character development. But in her sexual initiation of Bobby, she hits all the right notes, echoing Carlton’s philosophy that “it’s all good.”

Dallas Roberts does a superb job of playing a real man, not a gay stereotype. He’s mature and understated, counteracting Clare’s flamboyance, and a scene in which they are choosing a paint color for the nursery is realistic, not a sitcom moment. His love for Bobby doesn’t spill out all at once, but as a suppressed anguish when he finds Bobby and Clare in bed. He’s cautious about Bobby’s affectionate kisses and hugs, not really knowing what Bobby’s sexual preferences are. He loves Bobby, but he doesn’t really understand him.

The character of Bobby is done enormous justice by the three actors who play him. While young Andrew Chalmers has the least screen time, he captures the curious follower quality that will characterize Bobby for the rest of his life. As the film progressed, I was quite reminded of the character continuity Michael Apted captured in his Up series of documentaries. Erik Smith is very natural and open, playing beautifully off the intentionally stiffer Jonathan of Harris Allan, a gawky young man Bobby teaches to accept himself and those around him. Perhaps being uptight is a necessary characteristic to growing up, however, because it shows society has worked its socialization influence. Bobby seems largely untouched by social expectations, though he is easily influenced by those he loves and wants to please. Colin Farrell is miraculously good at playing this gentle soul who becomes a baker because Alice taught him how to bake one sleepless night and who has no particular ambitions except to love and be loved. He’s the “Nature Boy” Nat King Cole sang so affectingly about, real, yet not completely in the world.

Michael Mayer, a relatively inexperienced director, is to be commended for meshing the performances of the actors who play Bobby and Jonathan through the years so well and for helping to fill out the slightly underwritten roles of the actresses—though, of course, Spacek and Wright Penn are wonderful actresses who know how to make the most of what they have. His mise-en-scène isn’t terribly interesting, though the set decoration and costuming are dead on, and he doesn’t trust the audience as much as he should—we really could have figured out that Carlton would bleed to death without having him show us the shard of glass in his neck. The ending, a mental flashback that must have been lifted from the book, was unsuccessful and ruined the elegiac mood of the winterscape set-up, but by that time, I was so in love with this film, it really didn’t matter.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    16th/06/2010 to 12:02 pm

    I remember Sissy Spacek’s poignant turn as a housewife beset by grief in Todd Field’s INTO THE BEDROOM, which serves as a contrast to this more unrestrained work. But she’s a consumate performer.

    I’ll admit Marilyn, that I have never been much of a fan here, but that’s not going to stop me from issuing unreserved praise for this penetrating appraisal, and personal affinity. I’d certainly give this another go, but I originally saw it as a study of narcissistic ecentrics, even with it’s sharp delineation of the late 60’s sub-culture. Some of the film comes off as shallow and rather difficult to believe, though I admire Cunningham for THE HOURS.

    Your Armegeddon scenario is the first paragraph is superbly rendered, and a grim reminder of how so much was squandered in every sense, and yes I quite concur that ‘the elegiac mood’ was spoiled by that final flashback.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/06/2010 to 1:18 pm

    I was reminded a bit of Heart Beat, a beautiful, but unsuccessful film in which Spacek plays the “Clare” character. I thought this film did a better job of evoking its various eras than that film did of evoking the Beats, and the undercurrent of the love generation being trampled by the go-go 80s and AIDS hit home for me.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    16th/06/2010 to 2:46 pm

    Aye, Marilyn. I just clicked on that excellent review of HEART BEAT, which corroborates my own complaints with exceeding eloquence. It’s looks great, but the script is faulty. I agree that AT HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD, despite its issues is a stronger film than HEART BEAT.

  • CMrok93 spoke:
    16th/06/2010 to 6:10 pm

    For me, this film could have brought out a lot more emotions than it did. I’m not a homophobe or anything, but the fact that Farrell’s character couldn’t choose who we wanted, started to annoy me later on by the end of the film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/06/2010 to 7:01 pm

    CM – I think you kind of missed the point, though I’m not surprised. Bobby was a true hippie, and love is not exclusive to hippies. He wasn’t the conflicted one – Clare and Jonathan were.

  • Pat spoke:
    19th/06/2010 to 11:19 am

    I missed this on it’s initial release, but it’s always been somewhere in the back of mind. Based on you fine review, it’ll be going to my Netflix queue shortly.

    I’m constantly knocked out by Colin Farrell’s work. His latest, Neil Jordan’s “Ondine,” is another beautiful performance and a film I would recommend. Spacek is always great, too, and it seems like we don’t see enough of her these days. Not long ago, I watched the episode of “Saturday Night Live” that she hosted back in 1976, just after the release of “Carrie” – she’s got some comedy chops, too.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/06/2010 to 11:42 am

    Farrell is one of the great actors of our day, a fact not widely recognized because of the bad “big” movies he’s been in and a brief emphasis on his “wild” private life. I remember recognizing him after he became famous on “Ballykissangel,” an early part of his resume. I was knocked out how different he was in that than what I had seen in Minority Report or even the good film Phone Booth

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