When a crime is committed, an unfortunate convergence of fate, luck, and coincidence occurs between people that would otherwise be strangers. The violent and emotional sting of that event then spreads to the family and friends of all parties involved, from perpetrator to victim. Like ripples in a pond, one incident can affect dozens. Actor/director Tim Blake Nelson’s new film and fifth directorial feature, “Anesthesia,” probes that social reverberation in a provocative way. It opens this weekend for a run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago and is available on VOD outlets.
The catalyst for “Anesthesia” is a violent mugging on the streets of New York. The first person we meet is the victim of the crime, a Columbia University professor named Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterson), out picking up flowers for his wife. Bleeding from his injuries, he frantically buzzes the door of a brownstone waking the sleeping residents. His call is answered by a man named Sam (Corey Stoll) who consoles him until help arrives.
After that opening, the film peels time back and introduces us to many seemingly unconnected characters. Walter is a doting husband to his wife Marcia (Glenn Close) and ready for retirement. He is a progressive thinker and a helpful mentor to Sophie (Kristen Stewart), a troubled, but brilliant student. Before the incident happens, Walter learns from his son Adam (Nelson) that his daughter-in-law Jill (Jessica Hecht) has discovered a cancerous tumor. They are the well-off, pressure-pushing parents of two petulant and pot-smoking teens, Hal and Ella (Ben Konigsberg and Hannah Marks).
Other people become caught in this inauspicious net. There is a junkie (K. Todd Freeman) entering forced rehab at his high-end lawyer friend’s (Michael K. Williams) insistence. Also, we watch a crass, estranged single mother (Gretchen Mol) who finds pessimism with everything and drinks those troubles away. We slowly learn each character’s purpose (or lack of) as the narrative progresses and the building events of the crime are revealed.
All of the personalities of “Anesthesia” represent differing conflicts. The film hopes to earn your level of empathy for the characters that occupy this reality. All are shown with their respective flaws, intimations, motivations, and challenges. Through the senior voice of Sam Waterson, in a strong performance, the film raises a plethora of questions and launches many different angles.
The looping arrangement peeking into each character keeps curiosity high, yet its point-of-view is remarkably overcrowded with quandary that feels too manufactured for happenstance’s sake. Nelson, who also wrote the screenplay, wants his film to be a cornucopia of life’s potential tragedies in this technologically-dominant present day. Even with piqued interest, “Anesthesia” vacantly lacks sustaining answers to too many of those queries.
Lesson #1: People who act terrible to others make terrible children and relationships— One unfortunate flaw of “Anesthesia” is its Upper West Side New York environment. Waterson is the one redeeming person. He earns empathy while finding the same in others is difficult in underwritten, privileged white people who cuss their kids and neighbors out, sleep around, and show no hardship. There is a high horse with too many people on it and its unappealing.
Lesson #2: The differences of personal perspectives— The film plays with the pendulum of the human condition, its movement between the peaks of chance and purpose. It takes their character traits and defines which side of the pendulum they lean towards. Where they fall in that movement is meant to be root to their varied perspective.
Lesson #3: The unintended connections created by a crime or accident— “Anesthesia” spins a web to show the before-and-after lives of strangers that collide when fate brings them together. When the karma of this crime falls on the one good person in the film, everyone else has their hollow too-little-too-late “look in the mirror” moment where they may or may not change the worst parts of their mistakes and flaws. Even though such reflection can happen in the face of an accident, it shouldn’t take such an event to make people grow up.