In the haunting drama, “Anesthesia,” main character Professor Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston) is a moral, contented man enjoying life in New York City. He is happily married to Marcia (Glenn Close) and father to Adam Zarrow, (Tim Blake Nelson, who also wrote and directed).
We first see the kind prof in the opening scene. He’s strolling home on the Upper West Side and stops into a bodega to buy flowers for his wife Marcia, which we learn he’s been doing every Friday throughout their lives together.
Kristen Stewart shows her growing depth as an actress in her brilliant performance as a deeply troubled student who turns to her teacher Zarrow for help. In his office he asks her what’s wrong; she pushes her sleeves up and jeans down to expose stripes of self-inflicted burns. When he asks her why — and how — she is doing this to herself, she explains that searing her skin with a curling iron feels like a drug and she cannot stop. Her rage and disappointment at the world has left her ill-equipped to manage life’s demands. Zarrow, although terribly uncomfortable in this role, does the right thing and takes her to get help.
Gretchen Mol plays a lonely privileged mom living in an up-scale suburban home using wine as anesthesia. Her stress builds at carpools, during mundane chores and because of the abandonment by her selfish, shallow husband (Corey Stohl) who calls from “China” while she hears New York City street noise in the background and knows he’s having an affair.
What’s the moral of the story? Nelson points out the sorrow-filled human condition and makes it clear that it is up to individuals to choose to love and treasure great moments and that even the good or just okay times are worth savoring. The story is a reminder to live now rather than at some random date you may never reach.
The main strength of this character-driven film is the powerhouse ensemble cast and intertwining lives like we saw in “Babel” and “Crash.” Michael K. Williams is great as always, playing a corporate lawyer in high-end suits whose heart is breaking for his childhood friend (K. Todd Freeman). Freeman is exquisite as a hardened and violent street junkie.
The professor’s daughter-in-law, Adam’s wife Jill (Jessica Hecht), is bossy and unlikable and Adam is meek under her bullying personality but Nelson forces us to feel empathy towards her when Adam confides in his dad that she has a tumor.
Meanwhile, Adam’s son (Ben Konigsberg) struggles with sexual frustration and self-soothes with pot and masturbation, while his brooding angsty sister (Hannah Marks) dabbles with drugs. Expect suspense, violence, and a beautiful tenderness.
Kudos to Nelson for writing this tale that stays with you and not tying it up with a neat bow.
“Anesthesia” opens Jan. 8, 2015 in theaters and on Demand. Rated 89 min.