The bathroom door has been jammed shut for longer than anyone cares to remember. For the two perpetually hungover men occupying the apartment—Mat (Josh Lucas) and Alan (Stephen Plunkett)—that creates a few inconveniences. And by “inconveniences,” we mean “a buildup of urine and vomit in the kitchen sink.” The home’s matriarch is out of town, and while you’re watching The Mend, you swear you can smell the aroma building in her absence. Unwashed flesh. Stale beer. Burnt nicotine, cheap weed. The movie smells the way that bars did back when you could smoke in them. It smells outdated.
The pair aren’t roommates; they’re brothers. We meet Mat at his girlfriend Andrea’s house (she’s played by Lucy Owen). He plays with her kid, then he plays with her, then he gets himself thrown out. That we next see him nodding off in a cupcake shop suggests something that the movie never confirms outright: Mat’s got no home to return to. We first meet Alan arguing with his better half, too. That’d be Farrah, played by Mickey Sumner. She’s apparently just swatted his penis away, pre-climax, and—balancing the same lasciviousness we’ve already seen in Mat with what looks to be a well-practiced timidity—Alan is raising an objection to the act. “So you want to stare into my eyes,” Andrea fires back, “and shoot come in them?” The irony being that—because he’s the vaguely domesticated ego to Mat’s slutty id—that’s exactly what Alan wants.
That dialogue is sharp enough to spike you (closer to Feydeau than to most other American independent filmmaking), and first-time writer/director John Magary follows it with a moment of staging to match. Andrea concludes her takedown by throwing the bedroom door open, revealing a large party occurring outside it, seemingly oblivious to the couple’s high-intensity showdown regarding the final resting place of Alan’s ejaculate. As with most parties that alternate between “fun” and “painfully awkward,” the guest list has multiple categories: There are the friends working-class Alan made growing up; a troupe of dancers from the theatrical company Andrea works at; and some neighbors there to say goodbye to both of them, since the couple is leaving on vacation the next day. And then there’s Mat, suddenly on the couch, showing up the way a particularly untoward urge does: without warning.
We end up staying at the party for 20 minutes. After we’ve become acquainted with the guests, we get a series of compositions showing us the subgroups they’ve fallen into: Mat, Alan, and the bros they’re goofing on; Andrea with her friends from work cornered off by the couch; a couple dancers doing some dancing; a few men chatting and giggling, scoping the whole of it and looking for a lay. There’s an emphatic energy to the sequence—it’s one of many that recall Scorsese (later on, we’re in the bar from Mean Streets). Magary’s images often have the same rolling feeling that the master can give us, the feeling that the camera is traveling like a cloud. Or maybe it’s a ghost.
You can play the cinephile calling-card game here, naming the influences as they arrive: the unsparing gaze of Cassavetes. The urban playfulness and emotional sympathy of Truffaut. And on and on, unendingly. But Magary synthesizes those influences into something almost unrecognizable. Scorsese and his many spiritual sons often work to get us inside the heads of their main characters. And by the time that party scene ends, we don’t even know who the main character of The Mend is. We think back to the subgroups sequence earlier. That’s not really Scorsesean subjectivity, either. It’s something rather new. It’s energized anthropology—a social study with a pulse.
Magary is pillorying us with provocations. There’s a profound camera pan to that effect. Earl, an older man and a friend of the brothers’ father, shows up to the shindig. He starts speaking nostalgically about the “old times” of New York City—working a personal sexual conquest into his narrative while he reminisces, as men are wont to do. He says that it was a lost time—there was more mingling in the city then. It should be mentioned at this point that Earl—along with Alan, and Mat, and Andrea, and Farrah—is white. Farrah comments that this sounds magical. And then the camera does that pan to one of the many non-white attendees of the party, who dutifully checks some privilege: “It’s better now.” Then silence. Then, Earl—not ignorant, but reticent to concede—observes that it’s “different.” And the movie doesn’t bother itself to sort out the political implications of these ideological conflicts, thankfully. Because that’s our job.
Anyway, the bathroom door. The party ends. Mat falls asleep in the guest room. When he wakes up, Alan and Farrah are gone—meaning he’s got a place to stay. Andrea comes over with her son because her apartment is getting sprayed for bedbugs, and better to stay with Mat than with the boy’s insufferable father. Alan returns home—without Farrah. Anxieties boil. Eventually the brothers are alone. And they keep needing to use the damn bathroom. And it just won’t open. And so they take a knife and chop away at that jammed door with all their antiquated passed-down machismo, playing Jack Nicholson for the benefit of their own egos. Magary’s camera cuts to many angles while they play rage monkey, but we’re still not in their heads. We’re left to observe. And it reminds you that one of the greatest pleasures a movie can offer is to let you watch it.
The bulk of this movie takes place between the party and the door-stabbing incident. Since Andrea is staying with the rather helpless Mat, we know that she’s the maternal type. So when Alan returns home wounded, it stands to reason that she begins to care for him. And with small nuances and gestures—a stray hand grazing an arm, an errant gaze held for too long—Magary pits the three forces against one another, watching as they alternate through power dynamics and emotional states. We could call that a plot description. Yet such a thing sells short the film’s invigorating adventurousness. The Mend has the rare ability to get lost in itself. Maybe we do come to realize, in answer to an earlier question, that the main characters are Mat and Alan. But this is still a movie that’s willing to divert to two side characters—Andrea and her son—for an extended conversation that features profundities about the nature of lying, and also fart jokes.
Thematic interests are less elusive. All the visual motifs stress the image of this unkempt, unshaven man surrounded by technology that seems generations ahead of him. He stares at his phone with his laptop running uselessly behind it; he argues with a TV salesman about HD resolutions then walks home with a boxy set he finds on the side of a street. He sucks on an electronic cigarette and then stares at it as though it were a person asking him a question he can’t answer. And he treats women—people, really, but usually women—terribly. “You should change,” Andrea says to Mat upon first sight of him. She’s talking about his clothes, but she’s not actually talking about his clothes. “You should change.” But if you’ve been watching closely, then you already know he probably can’t.
THE MEND. UNRATED. NOW AVAILABLE ON VOD OUTLETS, INCLUDING ITUNES AND AMAZON INSTANT VIDEO.