Paint It Black: A Brash & Beautiful Meditation On Grief

This piece was originally published by Film Inquiry on June 6, 2017.

t is never easy to deal with the death of a loved one, but dealing with suicide of a loved one is an altogether different breed of pain, primarily inflicted by unanswered questions: why did they do it? Should I have seen the signs? Why didn’t they tell me how they felt? Could I have done anything to prevent this tragedy? Am I somehow responsible?

Paint It Black, adapted from the novel by Janet Fitch and directed by Amber Tamblyn, explores the lingering pain that the suicide of a loved one can cause those who are left behind, unable to glean the answers to these questions and stuck in an endless cycle of grief as a result. And while Tamblyn occasionally leans too hard on artistic flourishes, inserting distracting avant-garde touches into her already powerful story where they aren’t needed, it’s clear from her debut feature that her talent behind the camera is as considerable as her talent in front of it.

A Tale of Two Women

Josie (Alia Shawkat, rawer than you’ve ever seen her before) is an art model and punk rock party girl desperately in love with Michael (Rhys Wakefield), a sensitive artist from a wealthy society family led by renowned pianist Meredith (Janet McTeer, excellent as always) and “the Jewish Hemingway”, Cal (Alfred Molina). It’s clear that Josie and Michael are soul mates; it’s also clear that despite this, there is a lot they are incapable of truly understanding about each other — and it’s not just because of the deep-seated class conflict in their unlikely love story. Josie might be the one from the wrong side of Los Angeles’ tracks, but it turns out Michael is the one with more fundamental issues, despite his life of privilege.

One day, Michael leaves the home he shares with Josie to visit his mother; furious when days go by with nary a phone call, Josie goes on a good old-fashioned bender with her best friend, Pen (Emily Rios). The next morning, she finally receives a phone call, but it’s not the one she was hoping for: it’s the police, calling to inform her that Michael has been found dead in a motel room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It’s then that Josie’s life truly spirals out of control — yet the mess is not entirely of her own making.

Josie finds herself trapped in a potentially deadly cat-and-mouse game with Meredith, who both blames Josie for her beloved son’s death and wants to fill the void in her life left by Michael with the girl he loved most in the world — and who, it turns out, knew him far better than his own mother did. Both women grow increasingly crazed by their grief and take it out on each other in ways that are both comforting and destructive. Resentful and jealous of the love Michael bore for Josie, Meredith becomes obsessed with inserting herself into Josie’s life and alternates between trying to ruin it and trying to improve it.

In one particularly twisted sequence that perfectly encapsulates Meredith’s mania, Meredith decides to play nice and take Josie out to a nice dinner at a restaurant frequented by the kinds of high-society patrons who have been to all of her recitals. She then manipulates Josie into taking her to see the apartment she shared with Michael, and then, when Josie leaves, empties it of every shred of evidence of Michael’s existence, including his intimate, art-filled journals.

The frenetic scenes showing Josie’s sheer panic upon realizing that Meredith has robbed her of her memories of Michael, cut with Meredith calmly playing piano while movers bring the sofa from Josie’s bohemian home into her stately mansion, take the audience on an emotional roller-coaster. This is made all the more topsy-turvy by the fact that, despite Meredith’s cruel and vindictive behavior, one cannot help but have some sympathy for her as well as Josie.

The Painful Power of Unanswered Questions

It’s obvious that Meredith and Michael had a somewhat Oedipal relationship — Meredith even throws the term around herself during her dinner with Josie. But the film leaves the degree of their incredibly closeness rather opaque; it is implied that incest may have occurred, but never proven. Yet even with these unpleasant thoughts lurking in the back of one’s mind, one cannot help but be drawn in by Meredith and her ostentatious displays of grief, just as Josie is so many times throughout the film, and to feel sorry for her.

Meredith is most definitely a poisonous human being, but she’s also capable of making her poison taste very sweet indeed. A lot of this is due to the powerhouse performance by Janet McTeer, one of cinema’s most underrated performers. Pounding piano keys and tumblers of whiskey in equal measures, without any vanity whatsoever, McTeer makes Meredith appealing even in her ugliest moments.

During the Q&A following the screening I attended at New York’s Village East Cinema, Tamblyn cited films like Joe Wright’s Ronan-versus-Blanchett saga Hanna as being a major influence on why she decided to adapt Fitch’s novel. According to Tamblyn, there aren’t enough films that showcase women at war with one another. She wanted to tell a story that showed the strength of two women hunting each other down without the involvement or interference of men. Indeed, there are too few films currently in theaters with so many scenes starring only women.

And while Paint It Black might not be the most Bechdel-Wallace test-friendly of films, seeing as Meredith and Josie spend most, if not all, of their scenes talking about Michael, the film remains unapologetically feminist in its depiction of troubled, damaged and imperfect women. These women deserve to have their stories told, even if they aren’t neatly tied up at the end with the pretty bow.

Just as the true nature of Michael and Meredith’s relationship remains unclear, so do Michael’s emotional issues and his reasons for committing suicide. Both Josie and Meredith remain in the dark as to why Michael would make the decision to end his own life, as does the audience. This feels altogether more realistic than having Michael’s reasoning clearly outlined on a series of tapes a la 13 Reasons Why.

The truth is, it’s hard to verbalize the reasons why someone with depression and mental illness ends up making such a drastic choice. It’s hard to clearly point at something and say, “There it is. That was the reason. That was the sign.” Mental illness is so much more complicated than that, and Tamblyn’s deliberate decision to avoid focusing so much on Michael’s inner torment, instead focusing on the torment of those he left behind him, feels properly messy and realistic, and all the more painful to behold as a result.

Finding Beauty in Tragedy

Tamblyn’s Los Angeles appears to be the same one showcased in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon: all flashing strobe lights, deeply saturated colors and hallucinatory images. The colorful shots and storytelling veering on the edge of melodrama also harken back to Rainer Werner Fassbinder films such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (another film about women engaged in a manipulative war with one another) and Lola.

A combination of on-set lighting (and excellent work on the part of cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard) and extreme color correction gives Paint It Black a very stylized and remarkably beautiful look despite the tragic horror of the subject matter. Shawkat’s already intense performance is accentuated by obsessive close-ups of her unique face and the cavalcade of freckles painted across it. Nothing escapes the audience — not even the twitch of an eyelash.

In short, Paint It Black is a very directed film; Tamblyn’s hand can be seen all over it. During the Q&A, she acknowledged that, after many years observing directors as an actress, she took great joy in finally being behind the camera and able to experiment and try different things. She didn’t hesitate to take some crazy chances; if an idea hit her, she tried it out, and then she played the film before numerous test audiences to figure out what worked best. This honesty on the part of a director felt rare and refreshing to hear, and after watching Paint It Black, it also makes a lot of sense.

Some of Tamblyn’s experiments work incredibly well; others feel far too heavy-handed, and bear all the trademarks of a new director a little too enamored with the tricks and tools at her disposal. In particular, the moment when Josie tells the cop on the phone that Michael is survived by a mother — and that phrase, “a mother”, is repeated over and over again, an incantation that almost becomes part of the soundtrack. Yet it doesn’t add any emotional magnitude to what is already a heart-wrenching scene; instead, it feels unnecessarily distracting. I don’t want to resort to film school platitudes, but it took me out of the scene.

Conclusion

Sometimes less is more, and that is a lesson that Tamblyn still needs to learn. Yet overall Paint It Black is a very impressive directorial debut, all the more so because it chooses to tell what on the surface could have been a story centered around a man through the voices and perspectives of two women. All too often, it is the other way around, with men taking it upon themselves to tell the stories of women, with nary a female voice in sight. Paint It Black features the voices of three very talented women — Tamblyn, Shawkat, and McTeer — and is all the more powerful for it.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Lee Jutton’s story.