In 2000, writer-director Ken Lonergan had just come off of making the estimable The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. His follow-up, You Can Count on Me, is one of the strongest written and acted family dramas ever made. Go figure.
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 family drama), we see them as adults. 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 an irresponsible drifter who comes home to visit. Both are not emotionally crippled, but they are certainly products of the trauma, the communication of which is never overt. We get no long, laborious revelations or speeches, no explosive healings or verbal re-opening of old wounds. These people are hurt, but aren’t we all? Lonergan subordinates the pain to the hard truth that they have to live their lives like the rest of us.
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, just floats in and out of situations. Linney’s son (another in a long line of Culkins) is a bridge between the siblings.
There are few lessons learned. But the beauty and pain of family is 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 actual distinguishing qualities and natural impulses. 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 soundtrack features a heavy dose of roots rock, alt-country and Americana (Steve Earle, Marah, and my favorite unsung band, The V-Roys).