By Jack Dignan
Xavier Dolan is currently 29 years old. His first feature film, I Killed My Mother, premiered at the prestigious Cannes film festival when he was just 20 years old, and in the nine years that have passed since then, Dolan has gone on to earn critical acclaim with his six subsequent films and several recent acting appearances in hit movies. Dolan hasn’t even hit 30 yet and he’s already experienced a career akin to some of the all time greats. Can we stop for a moment and appreciate how utterly insane that is? Can we? Okay, good. Because his latest film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, is another welcomed addition to the young filmmaker’s never ending filmography.
The French-Canadian writer-director, who’s best known for his 2014 drama Mommy (not the Tom Cruise one), transitions to Hollywood with his English language debut. It’s a story of fame, the burdens of living in the public eye, family, sexuality, how our relationships with others reflect upon whom we are, and everything else in-between. A troubled and much delayed post-production, in which the film was consistently reworked and shuffled around, loosing Jessica Chastain in the process, had me preparing for the worst. However, it was my admiration for Dolan’s work that kept me optimistic, and, like always, the man knows how to deliver.
His confidence in the craft and auteur-like style carries over into this ambitious peek behind the curtains of a closeted gay actor (Kit Harrington) who shares a written correspondence with a young boy (Jacob Tremblay), as told through the lens of his older self, now played by Ben Schnetzer. Dolan fully commits to illogicalness of the plot, which will take a lot for viewers to be able to look past, but his choice not to put the letters in the forefront makes this less of a tale about two lonely people connecting and more an emotional kaleidoscope of their very troubled lives and the parallels they shared.
In fact, while the letters are mentioned throughout, they barely play a major role until well into the third act. This is, for a lot of it, two completely separate stories, tied together solely by an interview Schnetzer is sharing with Westworld’s Thandie Newton. It’s as melodramatic and over the top as they come, with perhaps the least subdued and subtle approach to storytelling in all of Dolan’s filmography, and yet at the same time I found myself really invested in where the narrative was heading. Harrington gives his best, most nuanced and emotional performance to date, one that finally gets to show off his raw acting talents, unlike so many of his movies before this.
The boisterous, flashy style implemented means there’s rarely a dull moment as cinematographer André Turpin maintains complete control of his camera, moving it in the most elegant and exciting of ways. Matched with an over the top but hard hitting soundtrack, expect several sequences of slow motion to manipulate their way into assaulting your emotions. You can feel the film begging for you to cry, but honestly, it almost works. A lot of the primary plot beats feel very familiar and reminiscent of Dolan’s other work, and not all of them mash together in the most coherent of ways, but everyone involved is giving it their all, and the love and affection poured into the craft really helps.
When it begins to delve into the burdens of celebrity, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan works wonders. Jacob Tremblay’s character may have gotten on my nerves a little bit, but if nothing else, his performance proves that he’s absolutely capable of holding his own movie, especially alongside some of the all time greats like the iconic Natalie Portman. I hope she never retires. The negativity surrounding this film is astonishing to me; this has been, by far, one of the best surprises of 2018. Just when you start to doubt Dolan, he sneaks up and knocks the wind right out from under you. Give this film a go. You may actually enjoy it.
3 1/2 Stars
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