Frank Goode has spent his entire life making rubber coating for the telephone wires that run along America’s railways. As a result, he has developed an illness from decades of breathing noxious fumes. But more importantly, he has never taken the time to appreciate his own four middle-aged children. When his wife dies, Frank realises that she was the only point of contact between himself and his children. Her death strips him of his comfort, and grants him a rare and precious opportunity to peer inside his own past and find out where he lost his way. As his four children make their excuses to avoid visiting him for a reunion dinner, Frank decides to head out on an ill-advised (in fact downright forbidden as far as his doctor is concerned) road trip to surprise his unwitting cubs in their natural surroundings. In Frank’s eyes this can have nothing but cheerful and fulfilling consequences; his successful, grounded, and thoroughly happy children couldn’t possibly have anything to hide from their loving, if slightly distant, pater right? wrong.
As Frank travels the length and breadth of Whitman’s beloved country, he watches the great American Dream crashing before him and hurling the wreckage at his feet. He discovers that his wife had lied to him about his children’s successes, and neglected to tell him about their multitude of frailties and failures. His artist son, David, is nowhere to be found in New York; and his only truly successful child (Amy, an advertising executive) is too busy juggling a failed marriage and trying to find out what the hell has happened to David (he was last heard from in a Mexican jail) to pay her long lost father any attention. Robert, supposedly a renowned conductor, actually plays a timpani drum at the back of the orchestra; and Rosie, a “famous dancer”, is a single mother tending a bar in Las Vegas. The most painful thing about this slow crumbling illusion is the pitiful desperation with which each child tries to conceal their failure. Frank is heart-broken by the realisation that his children would rather lie than be honest with him; and he comes to realise that this is essentially his fault. But through determination and a new found humility, he is able to bond the family together again, and as he stands before his wife’s grave delivering an update on how the kids are doing, he is able to honestly reflect that… everybody’s fine.
Whatever Kirk Jones set out to do, he has created a truly sparing and beautiful film. There is plenty of humour and melodrama to keep commercial audiences happy, but beneath that there really is a depth of emotion that is quite devastatingly affecting. Frank’s realisation that he is the main source of antagonism in the lives of the four children that he has spent his whole life supporting is brutal, but the fact that there is no real opportunity for resolution is even more heartbreaking. It is too late to help his children improve their lives, and it is too late to witness them becoming the individuals they are now. All that is left for Frank to do is let the past slip away and try to enjoy an uncertain but comfortable future now that the illusions have been obliterated.
There is also a deep emotional resonance in the stories of the four children. For most of the year, we are confident in the conviction that the endless struggles and compromises that fill our daily lives are actually part of the fabric of modern life; but then we all have those awkward meals and visits when our parents ask us why we aren’t happier or more successful, and it is at these crushing moments that we suddenly feel like we have failed in some way. It is a painful but inspiring reminder that ‘Life’ is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted; and this universal truth is etched on the faces of Frank’s desperately fragile children, especially Sam Rockwell, who is superb as the childish but shy musician.
But more than anything else, this really is a powerful, elegiac ode to America: The Place Where Nobody Feels At Home. Some of the greatest films about nations are made by outsiders – Alan Parker, a born and bred Londoner, created two of the greatest films about 20th century America with Mississippi Burning and The Life of David Gale – and Kirk Jones achieves a similar result with Everybody’s Fine. Frank is a blue-collar man who has spent his life working in a factory while his wife and country lie to him about successes at home and abroad. He has buried himself in his work and allowed the American Dream to whisk him away from the gritty reality of life. When he finally wakes up and takes a look outside his cave – and takes off on the railways and highways that he, in a sense, helped to build – he realises that he lives in a nation of alienated and scared souls travelling from place to place. This is the tangible sense of loneliness at the heart of the film. Frank’s speciality was telephones, but everything about the American Dream is innately ‘tele’ – spread over great distances with no real connection or community to link it’s disparate elements.
Finally, and so inherent to the success of the film, is the performance of Robert DeNiro. He has been an absorbing, brooding New Yorker for four decades, but his attempts at expressing a more sympathetic side to the human condition have often fallen short. Perhaps largely as a result of his age, rather than a conscious change in his style, his performance in this film is wonderful. The powerful and stubborn DeNiro of Raging Bull is still hiding in the ridges and wrinkles of his aged face; but he is stooped in a softening pathos for the entirety of the film, and we cannot help but fall deeply under the spell of his quivering frowns and tear-filled eyes. If DeNiro was the John Wayne of New Hollywood, then this is his The Quiet Man.