anesthesiaI’m not spilling any industry secrets when I say that it’s not easy to nail interconnected ensemble dramas. More often than not, they stumble and fall into clichéd territory, undeserving the large cast in the process. In the case of Tim Blake Nelson‘s Anesthesia, however, the good more than outweighs the bad. Nelson is a talented multi hyphenated, adept at both acting and filmmaking. Here, he presents a slightly different take, and not attempting to really hide the relationships of the various characters for any length of time, instead letting things play out without much mystery. Of course, you need strong acting to have this work, and luckily Nelson has that in spades, with Kristen Stewart and Sam Waterston especially turning in compelling work. Hardly perfect, the film clearly prefers some of its characters to others and the final act isn’t quite as profound as it hopes to be.  With that said, this is probably Nelson’s most ambitious work to date.

This is a look at how the lives of multiple individuals intersect before, during, and after the mugging of a man. The intersections are sometimes big, sometimes small, but all have some meaning. The man in question is Columbia University professor Walter Zarrow (Waterston), someone who we come to learn always tries to make the lives of others better. Whether it’s his wife Marcia (Glenn Close), who he gives flowers to once a week, or student Sophie (Stewart), who he helps confront issues of self harm, he’s clearly a good egg. The relationships move outward from there, with how everyone knows each other best left for you to see, but we also encounter the lives of many others, including a family headed by Adam (Nelson), as well as the two individuals who find Walter after he’s assaulted, Sam (Corey Stoll) and Nicole (Mickey Sumner). There’s a lawyer named Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams) attempting to help a junkie friend (K. Todd Freeman) get clean, as well as a depressed housewife (Gretchen Mol) in the suburbs. Once you understand who everyone is, why we’re looking into all of their lives makes sense. From there, the film floats on, hoping to make points about life and the nature of human existence.

Anesthesia_web_2Acting wise, this film is truly an ensemble piece, though some folks do manage to stand out.  Kristen Stewart shows a deep reserve of pain playing a wounded young woman, while Sam Waterston gets to truly shine in his wise old man role. It’s no surprise then that some of the best scenes in the movie feature the two of them together. Their interactions have a melancholy yet compelling air to them. Also working well together are Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks, playing the children of Tim Blake Nelson’s character. Nelson gives himself a mostly thankless role, but Konigsberg and Marks have a truthfulness to them that makes you want to spend time with them. Gretchen Mol has an underwritten role, but she elevates the material, showing you why she should act more. The likes of Glenn Close, Corey Stoll, and Michael K. Williams are their reliable selves, while the aforementioned K. Todd Freeman and Mickey Sumner are no slouches themselves. Also on hand are Jessica Hecht, among plenty others.

Tim Blake Nelson keeps everything simple from a directorial standpoint, never seeking to obfuscate or confuse you in any way. On the one hand, it makes for a pretty dry-looking film, but on the other, Anesthesia is really designed mostly as an acting and writing vehicle. Nelson clearly wants to have the focus on his various monologues. It winds up paying off, though occasionally he does hammer his point on human connections and loneliness a little too broadly home. You might also become slightly frustrated with certain plot turns and avenues that are left mostly unexplored by Nelson.

In the end, Anesthesia is a small-scale movie painted over a large canvas, if that makes sense. If you like interconnected ensemble dramas like this as a general rule, I think it’ll have something to offer you. The same goes for those who are fans of Nelson behind the camera. I’m bigger on the latter than the former, but this still worked. Anesthesia isn’t going to be competing next year for any Oscars, but it gets the ball rolling on independent cinema in 2016 in a solid way.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!