Welcome To The Rileys

Welcome To The Rileys

****

Reviewed by: Nick Da Costa

Jake Scott’s Welcome To The Rileys is a visually arresting, emotionally complex look at the lives of Lois (Melissa Leo) and Doug Riley (James Gandolfini), a respected Indiana couple racked by grief after the death of their teenage daughter in a traffic accident. She shuts herself away in their family home while he slips away to New Orleans and forms a strange arrangement with teenage stripper-cum-prostitute Mallory (Kristen Stewart) who he takes under his wing, seeking a new way of healing his pain. Spurred into action by this rash decision, Lois frees herself from her crippling agoraphobia and sets out to save both her marriage and her soul.

While this might sound like a trite story of redemption, it’s one infused by both a unique aesthetic and compelling central performances. There’s an interesting disconnect as Doug works through a pattern of parental rituals and tableaus with Mallory in New Orleans and Lois embarks on a whimsical journey to rediscover herself and her relationship with her husband.

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It’s not perfect, the ending, as other films at this festival have, doing damage to the subtle build-up of emotion, but the performances are so intricate and nuanced that you’re willing to let it slide. Gandolfini and Leo are completely believable as a couple that haven’t quite lost their love, simply buried it deep within a home where the only real heartbeat comes from the sad ticking of a clock. The way they gently rebuild their relationship is so genuine and without fanfare that you feel like an intruder. That you might break such a delicate thing simply by observing it is part of the film’s magic.

A special mention has to go to Kristen Stewart who strips herself bare, both literally and figuratively. It's the details that matter here, not some petulant one-note image drummed up by the press. The rawness of the stripper’s uniform, profane, all panda eyes and duct-taped nipples contrasted with the timid girl scrubbed of make-up, pulling sweater cuffs over her hands and picking at her acne.

She builds such a strong rapport with Gandolfini, who evinces a surprising amount of vulnerability from that bear-like stature, that you almost forget she isn’t his daughter. And it reminds you that these seemingly harmless displays of concern between genuine family members can actually be threatening between strangers. A shot of Stewart shoulders hunched, arms crossed, head dropped to her chest in contrition as Gandolfini looms over her sums this up perfectly.

Most interesting is how director Scott seems to have picked Lois as his favourite. Visually it’s her that gets the most interesting arc, as his choice of shots reflect her guilt and subsequent transformation. Initially she is shot with her back to the camera, eyes obscured or, even when in full focus, looking unengaged. Indistinct. A blob on one of her canvases. Later, once she has braved the wide expanses of her car and chanced the highway, Scott adopts a more self-consciously artistic approach as Lois flits like a ghost across the lawn of an eerily deserted hotel. The stars come out and it’s fixed like a photograph. A transcendent experience.

Once the couple are reunited and confidence returns, so does unglamourised reality. Not that the New Orleans location isn’t very beautiful, it’s just not picture card perfect. It’s run down and rusty, with stained glass windows and paint peeling. What is certainly special is the light. It’s a magic hour that brings such solidity and substance to the images that you know it’s something you can believe in. There’s a potent reality that rises above the familiar themes and, in tandem with the performances, touches you deeply.

Reviewed on: 27 Jan 2010
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Welcome To The Rileys packshot
On a business trip to New Orleans, a damaged man seeks salvation by caring for a wayward young woman.
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Festivals:

Sundance 2010

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