A thin, pale young man is driving a Volvo station wagon around the streets of Seattle, searching out the windows across parking lots and city basketball courts. He wears a black leather jacket, and his dark hair is greased and combed smooth, but there is a distinctly unhealthy look about him that contradicts these indicators of self-care. He has dark circles under his wandering eyes and a hint of a 5 o’clock shadow. He is focused, and he soon finds what he is looking for: a ragged and dingy middle-aged woman leaning against a chain-link fence, nursing a 40 oz. wrapped in a black plastic bag. The young man pulls the car over and walks up behind the woman. He taps her on the shoulder through the fence, and she turns around — then, like a shot, she is off running, or at least trying to. She’s too drunk to make much of a getaway, and the young man manages to subdue her and get her into the car. Once she’s settled down and resigned herself to being his captive, he returns her beer, because she needs it to live. He knows this because she is his mother.
Despite having a compelling story, unflinchingly realistic acting, and some of the most convincing characters you’ll ever see on film, the aspects of director (and co-writer and producer) Christian Palmer’s William Never Married that will hog most of your attention are the mesmerizing cinematography (RK Adams) and the idiosyncratic editing (Palmer and Ian Lucero). The camera work is mostly handheld, sliding in and out of focus with trombone frequency, and is in extreme close-up much oftener than we’re used to. The editing messes with our comfort zone, too. At key moments for William, the troubled hero of the piece, shots of him will dissolve into hardcore digital-stutters that for a second will probably make you think something went wrong with the DVD, but turn out to be more like the scene trying to clear its head. We also get quick-cuts that jump through shots in near-stop-motion fashion: William is at the girl’s door — he gets the door open — he’s inside, peeking out — he shuts the door — 1, 2, 3, 4. All of this can be puzzling at first. But what might be more puzzling is how quickly it draws you in and completely engrosses you in William’s oversaturated yet bleak yet hopeful world.
William Never Married premiered late last year on the festival circuit and continues to make the rounds, but like so many extraordinary indie films, it may not get a chance at a regular theater run. It’s the first feature film by Palmer, who also plays the titular role so convincingly you feel like William is someone you know, or even someone you’ve been. In fact, the film follows him so intimately through his trials — unrequited obsession, institutionalization, family problems that are (hopefully) way worse than yours — that even at his lowest points, you’re not only doggedly on his side, but you even identify with him. William has some seemingly Sisyphean personal problems — soul- and body-crushing alcoholism (albeit highly functioning), a mother who’s three sheets to the wind out on the streets, a devastating view of humanity and the world. (“I know we live in a fucking sewer.”) — but unlike so many other beleaguered male protagonists we’ve seen, he’s unblinkingly self-aware, insightful, and honest about the ways in which he’s messed up. Moreover, he’s not apologizing for any of it. He might be pathetic, but he’s anything but pitiable.
Achieving this level of intimacy and identification could be the goal of the film’s approach to cinematography. The close-ups are ubiquitous — the stubble on William’s chin, the smeared eyeshadow on his crush’s lids, the black glasses frames hugging his psychologist’s bald head — we are right up on them and on almost everything else. Such close shots are usually effective when they’re used sparingly, as a way to highlight something “important.” Here, it’s the opposite. Close shots are used constantly and are so close (you can count William’s eyelashes) that they immerse you in William’s experience. They’re vibrant and raw and kinetic and even aggressive in their invasion of our personal space (perhaps another reason we don’t feel sorry for William: how do you pity someone who’s assaulting you?). It’s a more effective way to get close to a character than other more common techniques, like voiceover or seeing everything from someone’s literal point of view, à la Enter the Void. Character Cam works well in that instance, when the closeness is mostly bodiless, when a certain level of detachment is necessary — but here we’re dealing with a protagonist who’s very much alive, so Palmer doesn’t take us inside his head, he puts us in his face — and in everyone else’s face William comes into contact with. And yet the film is adept at knowing when to pull back, when to give its characters some space and avoid turning them into abstracts, to let William stumble with a bloody nose down a supermarket aisle or scramble up a fence and take off running across the rooftops.
But why is it important to feel “close” to a character anyway? If we watched William’s life from an outsider’s perspective, we would see an unhinged, half-dead, alcoholic misanthrope who’d rather slit his wrists than admit defeat in a botched attempt at love. But seen up close, as close to the inside as possible (without breaking the skin, anyway), we see his heroism and integrity — how hard he’s struggling, how honest he is, how he’s not giving up or lying down. He might feel awful most of the time and make some crazy decisions, but he’s not a defeatist or a lunatic. The up-close-and-personal method works for other characters in the film, too. Take his mother Eleanor (Lori Larsen), for example, the most believable and gut-wrenching drunk to be seen on film, who is both funny and sad, but never a joke or a sob story.
It’s important to mention that this movie is funny, too. It’s “artsy” and pretty damn dark, but William Never Married also has some of the most memorable one-liners, delivered as perfectly as any you’ve heard from a classic “straight man.” In response to a fellow patient’s impatience at his being on the psych ward’s phone too long, William looks the guy in the eyes and tells him, “Get away from me, or I will BUTT fuck you.” When explaining to his half brother how to take care of dosing Eleanor with wine while he’s gone for the night (filling up a mason jar to a line marked in Sharpie once every hour), he tells him earnestly, “If you need anything… don’t call me.” Also, little bro “turned out alright, aside from the crimes.” These and other glimmers of levity are pitch-perfect, because there’s no levity in the situations that set them up, unless you count the levity of laughing at the edge of hell. They also serve to highlight the fact that losers are people, too, and don’t spend every waking moment doing one-dimensional loser things.
In fact, William is planning improvements, such as getting sober, getting his mom sober, not being a stalker, feeling healthy. Considering what we’ve seen of his life, these goals are pretty lofty, but we’ve also seen his efforts — and he does achieve some tokens of success. Measuring out booze in a jar for your mom might look like rock bottom, but it’s a big step up from handing her the bottle and aiming her out the door. Insisting on violating the terms of your restraining order to go on a date with someone new indicates a pretty low depth of desperation (and possibly masochism), but at least you weren’t looking for the girl who filed the order. While there are plenty of moments in William Never Married that make you say, “Hey, that’s not bad,” or even, “nice,” nothing that happens will make you exactly cheer for William. The movie doesn’t care so much about resolution or coming out on top after a struggle, but more about continuing on, about the struggle itself. William might not get everything he wants — he might get none of it — but even a declaration like “William never married” at least proclaims that “William was.”