In 2000, writer-director Ken Lonergan had just come off of making the estimable The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle with this picture. It is one of the strongest written and acted family dramas I’ve ever seen. The closest recent reminder is Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.
Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo are siblings whose parents died in a car accident when they were children (I’d say 8 and 11). Once that fact is established with a sparse care that should be required viewing for all writers of drama, we are transported to their adult lives. Linney is divorced with an 8 year old son, and she lives in her parent’s house and works in her upstate New York hometown. Ruffalo is a drifter, and he comes home to visit. Both are not emotionally crippled, but they are certainly products of the trauma. The communication of the trauma, however, is never in a long or laborious revelation or speech. There are no explosive healings or verbal re-opening of old wounds.
Linney’s pain can be seen in how she prepares for her brother’s return, in her desire for order in all things, and in her penchant for the reckless (as long as such recklessness is papered over by a seemingly staid conservative existence). Ruffalo, on the other hand, drifts in all things. Linney’s son (another in a long line of Culkins) is a bit of a bridge between the siblings, but what is more effectively revealed is the alternating immaturity of all the characters.
There are few lessons learned or dawnings. The beauty and pain of family is nearly perfectly expressed throughout. Better, You Can Count On Me eschews stock secondary characters, infusing each (Linney’s boss Matthew Broderick, her minister, her boyfriend, her ex-husband, the town sheriff) with multi-layered traits in an economical fashion The film takes the time to linger on the emotional registers of these people in reaction to Linney and Ruffalo, as opposed to simply having them act in a standard fashion to further amplify the angst of the leads.
The original music is haunting cello and the sountrack features a heavy dose of roots rock, alt-country and Americana (Steve Earle, Marah, and my favorite unsung band, The V-Roys).