The unhappiness of men can be measured by their loneliness. In a world as gray as the one presented in Dagur Kári’s The Good Heart, this is practically a rule rather than a thesis. However, the company of friends and loved ones can swing the balance towards hope and redemption, perhaps even salvation. Although it may seem like a great divide, the characters in The Good Heart can testify to the possibility of this transformation, and they do so without appearing overly sentimental or maudlin.
Lucas (Paul Dano) and Jacques (Brian Cox) are an unlikely pair of outsiders. A misguided young man, Lucas sleeps beneath a freeway overpass and eats cat food from a tin, while the disillusioned Jacques pours shots for a handful of winos as he waits for his heart to give out. When they meet in an ICU, Jacques feels the need to rescue Lucas from his decided fate and mold him in his image, which is that of a dogmatically racist, generally despicable barkeep. Lucas becomes Jacques’s protégé, and the aging bigot schools him in his methods of misanthropy, with the expectation that he will uphold the laws of a true bar — no charity, no new customers, and absolutely no women. Several other rules apply, arriving as necessary comic relief in the relatively dismal piece, but the perfectly miserable bar is shaken up when April (Isild Le Besco), a charming foreigner, literally walks in from the rain.
As in Kári’s winning debut feature, Nói albínói, the Icelandic auteur is as interested in survival as he is fascinated by desperation. Circumstances in his films veer between grim and hopeful: at times, his characters are victims of their surroundings; other times, they prevail. Disregarding backstory, Kári seems particularly concerned with the tumultuous present and the unpredictable future. He allows the three-way relationship to develop as one would expect while maintaining a distant perspective. This allows the characters to really unfold: Cox is entertaining and over-the-top as Jacques, while Le Besco, the wild card, is subdued and mysterious as April. I’m not particularly sold on Dano — Lucas is taciturn and disconsolate and leans on everyone else to make it work — but his somber expressions and soft delivery fit the character.
At once vivid and relatable, flawed and endearing, Lucas, April, and Jacques contrast and complement Kári’s bleak environs. The director freely mixes overexposed lighting with a palette of dulled tones and drab interiors, recreating the ambiance of a dingy Lower Manhattan bar that no longer exists or perhaps never existed at all. It is an effective technique, given the morose and dire mood. Kári clearly has a thing for existential motifs, and anyone who has read Beckett will recognize the significance of a duck named Estragon. Sure, some audiences will be turned off its dark content, but there are several funny moments that counteract the seriousness, playing like a stage drama that could be easily adapted into a theater production. The Good Heart is not the feel-good film of the year, and it’s certainly not as stunning as Nói albínói, but it is a praiseworthy crossover effort nonetheless, marking the emergence of an important filmmaker in an American market that could use more of his breed.