Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, David Benger, Anna Paquin | Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach
As they bicker over the tennis net and over the dinner table, there’s tension in the Berkman family from the start. The year is 1986, and a pair of middle class Brooklyn parents are on the cusp of divorce. As we discover, it’s been coming for a long time. Joan (Laura Linney) had an affair for four years. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is jealous of his wife’s blossoming career, as he finds his own on a down slope.
Upon hearing the devastating news of the separation, the younger son Frank (Owen Kline) starts speaking obscenely and behaving obscener. His older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is more measured in his grief, but his cocky swagger is no more convincing a mask for the pain. As Joan and Bernard bellow, Walt practices a Roger Waters song: “Hey you, out there beyond the wall / Breaking bottles in the hall / Can you help me?”
Bernard is an intellectual. Instead of asking how Walt feels he discusses Kafka with him, and teaches Frank the meaning of the word philistine, like it’s so important. The philistine is Ivan (William Baldwin), the “brother” Frank never had, and his mother’s new lover. Ivan, a chilled out tennis instructor, has few enough responsibilities to fill the role of the cool uncle.
A motif of sports runs throughout the film. The family tensions emerge through tennis; Frank’s frustration with Dad is told through ping pong; and the brothers bicker while sparring with boxing gloves. Everything in the Berkman world is a competition. Intellectualism, the constant ambition and constant disappointment of Bernard, is itself competitive. It’s not enough to know F. Scott Fitzgerald; you have to know which work is masterful and which is trash.
All the Berkmans speak matter-of-factly but also coldly, distantly. Walt criticises the number of freckles on his girlfriend’s face, as if scrutinising a work of art. The parents have knowledge but little wisdom to bestow. Trailer trash in bibliophile tweed, Joan lets her youngest drink beer and Bernard doesn’t care if Walt comes home at night. The brothers really do want them to care.
Bernard compulsively rationalises. He makes excuses for his kids’ disobedience, but it’s in lieu of empathy. His sense of calm is inappropriate. He explains their behaviour without responding to it. And when Walt meets with a school counsellor, we see the same in him. He interrogates the counsellor, checking his credentials. A veil of arrogance as a defence for unspoken pain.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach has always shown a penchant for pointing out the weaknesses of people, especially men. Bernard is going through his third divorce, and he’s looking to a delusional future: he brings home a 20-year-old student, Lili (Anna Paquin), for company. She’s infatuated and he’s in a position of power. She’s the ideal, unrealistic antidote to the emasculation he feels at his wife’s success.
All the bad behaviour is telling us something. But as long as each family member is acting out they are not communicating. “You used to be very emotional when you were younger,” Bernard says to Walt. He’s blaming Walt for the breakdown in emotional connectivity between them. He’s blaming his son for not making good on the promise of parenthood.
The one time we witness a breakthrough is when we learn the meaning of the film’s title. It relates to yet another competition; something which is frightening to the child. And, tellingly, in that rare happy memory, the child was comforted – the parent did what a parent should do.
Filmed with slightly dingy naturalistic lighting, Baumbach delivers a lived-in 80s, shorn of neon and never fetishised. Originally released in 2005, it’s tonally darker than much of Baumbach’s later work, with little of the Woody Allen-type whimsy he has since perfected. The style suits the subject matter, which impressively ranges from loss to jealousy to misogyny to child sexuality without losing its way or its nerve. And all in 80 minutes.
The Squid and the Whale feels raw; as real as a family not being real with each other can. It feels hermetically sealed. Baumbach has a pair of great child performances here, but his real skill, as ever, is in mapping the disappointments of ageing. Walt and Frank are their parents’ resentments made manifest. And the spectacle is so well written and observed, so tragically amusing, and so packed with nuance, that you can’t take your eyes off it.
Many of the extras are Criterion-exclusive, including a Noah Baumbach interview; a chance for key actors to revisit the film; a Jeff Daniels interview; and a head-to-heads between Baumbach and the movie’s composers. There’s also an audition reel (with an alarmingly youthful Eisenberg), a behind the scenes doc, and trailers.
The Squid and the Whale is out now on Blu-ray from Criterion.