There’re no cell phones in Alex Ross Perry’s hermetic Golden Exits. What technology there is has no semblance of the modern landscape. In fact, the materials of this film are items of another time: letters written to past loved ones, decades-old cordless phones, vintage (or vintage-looking) clothes. It’s not a slight gesture to place the film within a universal perspective, a plane of existence devoid of context; no, this bloc of New York is a communicative dead zone. It’s as if the airplane that cuts across the sky blue opening frame is the only way out of this suffocating and stunted world — an entrance and an exit simultaneously, ignorant of the pitiful attempts of escape going on down below.
The ensemble that occupies this brownstone wasteland of impotent desire feels plucked out of John Cassavetes’s Faces or Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Instead of the former’s emotional rawness and the latter’s moral wit, Perry’s eye is nihilistically caustic. And Golden Exits is his harshest vision of the American bourgeoisie. This finds kin in the 1960s-70s era projects of Luis Buñuel: constructions of malaise and boredom where desire is not simply unfulfilled but wholly insignificant. Perry crafts a machination of judgment from where there are, well, no exits.
When the youthful Naomi arrives from Australia to assist the middle-aged Nick in archiving his late father-in-law’s materials, or his “stuff,” the scars of this family become fresh wounds. There’s an avatar for every sort of interpersonal suffering: Nick’s wife Alyssa lives with her husband’s callousness only by convincing herself of its normalcy; her sister Gwen locates self-sufficiency in her lonely homebound life by concealing herself in the melodrama of Alyssa and Nick’s marriage; even peripheral characters find themselves caught in the magnetic awfulness of this family when a friend of a friend, Buddy, begins to steal time away to hang out with Naomi and neglect his wife Jess. Yet, there are only shades of infidelity and emotional affairs, mostly which are enacted by the men. In Golden Exits, the miserable find company in the spaces they inhabit. Nothing is shared; nothing is collective.
The key to the film’s vision is in Emily Browning’s Naomi. Foreign to this specific New York malaise which engulfs her, she’s the only one truly capable of forward motion. Though, as she sees it, her perpetual transience is a blight, not a gift. She might truly be the only character with an exit, yet she navigates these trenches like the audience: dislocated and manic. Her affections and desires are undetermined from scene to scene, a foreigner adrift in this society of disconnect.
With family, the snake eternally eats its tail, so Nick, Alyssa, Gwen and those they consume in their bourgeois despair have no place to go. Perry presses that bruise by never leaving what seems to be a three-block radius. Spaces are filled to the brim with life’s stuff. It’s Nick’s very profession to parcel off and archive the materials of those who have passed away. That he would now be doing so with his own family gives hint to this film’s theme of generational displacement. Bloodlines end, as does love and marriage. The ills that the bourgeois arbitrarily craft compiles and compress down upon these lives like brick and mortar. And since the film is laced with no ounce of hope, they might be here forever. Hell, the only time the sky is in view is at the film’s beginning.
What Perry might be best at is creating a dialectical of modern experience, one where privileged despondency is played against intimate-bordering-on-invasive camerawork. Many argue that the close-up must be earned, something like a visual climax, an emotional crescendo. But Perry and his stalwart cinematographer Sean Price Williams use close-ups as their primary cinematic topography. Faces reveal more than interactions. They contain caverns of emotions, the ruts of life. These characters constantly see past one another, unable to even tell the slightest of truths, so it makes sense that the camera would be the partner most intimate. There may be no momentary hope, no compassion for these toxic figures, but the camera makes it impossible not to understand them. In an absence of empathy, there is embeddedness; each are equally powerful.
Golden Exits could be subtitled Big Little Lies. Alex Ross Perry pieces this, to borrow a friend’s term, “incestuous portrait” of interpersonal impotence from the small rifts that separate the privileged class. They justify and trivialize their social ineptitude until they find themselves with no out. When the damage is done, and the rot of life has become a home, there’s only one question to be asked: “Is that all there is?” This film doesn’t have an answer, but it does compel one to actually care about the stuff of their life.
Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.