The first time I really took notice of John Hawkes was during his stint on the brilliant HBO series Deadwood, where he portrayed gentle Sol Starr. When pushed Starr could brandish a weapon with the best of them, but he chose to be a different sort of man in the brutal world that was the old west. His best friend was Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) a hot-headed lawyer, fast to fly off the handle, deadly with a weapon, and to whom Starr was often the conscience of the partnership. Though the series was crowded with fine acting, Hawkes was a standout, and began to show up in films being released, Miami Vice (2006) being one of the first that saw Hawkes in a decent role.
In the years since he has been an Oscar nominee for his powerful work in Winter’s Bone (2009) and perhaps should have been one last year, though it is certain he will be one this year for his mesmerizing work in this outstanding new film that has burned through the festival circuit since Sundance.
Hawkes contorts his body in a manner that was very much like silent screen actor Lon Chaney, capturing the look of a man stricken with polio at a young age and forced to live most of his life in an iron lung. Though he went to school, is an excellent writer and poet, he does not feel his life is complete and will spend the film trying to conquer something that has left him feeling less than a man. Assigned to write an article on handicapped people struggles with sex, he opens a door that has long been closed to him.
Set in the seventies, though with a decided sixties feel and mentality, we meet Mark (Hawkes) a likable university educated man, a romantic who does not really expect any sort of romance in his life. However his body speaks to him, and he wants to have sex, he needs to have sex, he needs to feel that level of intimacy with another human being. A religious man he spends a lot of time speaking with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) who becomes his friend and listening board, who tells Mark to go for what he is going for, that considering all that he has endured, he believes God will give the man a pass for what he is seeking.
Through contacts among the handicapped people he knows, Mark meets Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a free thinking, very open sex therapist that will meet with Mark six times and eventually allow him to experience sexual intercourse with him. How is she different than a hooker? First of all she will only see him a certain number of times and second, the sessions are in the beginning all very clinical. The characters within the film best describe the differences, and I will leave it to them, but suffice to say the pair comes to mean a great deal more to one another than either expects at the beginning.
The performances of Hawkes and Hunt are superb, both certain Oscar nominees. Hawkes captures the anguish of a man tormented by his body, but not willing to give up living his life. All he wants is to be treated as a person, to be accepted as a man, and to be able to have what every other man has. While he wishes to experience sex with a beautiful woman, it is also important to him that she too enjoy the experience. The moments between Hawkes and Hunt together in bed are honest and real, portrayed very matter of factly, which simply lends to the realism. Each actor is rather courageous in their performance, tossing vanity aside and appearing nude in many of their sequences. That said it is Hunt who displays astounding courage with full nudity which works for her character because of her comfort level with sex and her body. As Mark is a poet with words, Cheryl is a poet with her body, bringing Mark the first physical beauty of his life. We feel Marks’ pain through Hawkes superb performance, (watch his eyes) and the constant strain in his voice. What he accomplishes is a work of performance art.
Having not ever been a fan of Helen Hunt I was more than pleasantly surprised by her warm and lovely performance as Cheryl. When Hunt won an Oscar back in 1997 for As Good As It Gets (1997) I was among the howlers screaming out in protest, but here she is brilliant. Her gentle evolution in the role as feelings for Mark begin to take hold of her allow for her to create a unique woman willing to give almost all herself, holding some back, though in Marks’ case she feels things she has never felt for a client before. William H. Macy does a nice job with the priest Mark confides in, supporting his friend where he can, advising him where he sees fit, but realizing Mark must walk this path on his own. His greatest gift to him is his friendship.
Ben Lewin seems to have recognized that the actors carry the film, and anything pulling away from the actors would weaken his picture. Thus he does what many good directors have done…stayed out of the way of the actors.
It is the sort of film that has a rare power, the type that hits the audience with full emotional force and manages to stroke the soul of those watching it. You will not soon forget Mark and Cheryl and the moments they share, because as we see them give to one another we are seeing something of humanity at its very best.