I have an unusual, all-consuming fascination with the modern fairy tale Electrick Children. For a somewhat quiet & unassuming indie drama, the film has burrowed its way deep into my unconscious and I find myself thinking about it & rewatching it far more often than I probably should. A lot of the film’s success is easily recognizable in the lead performances from actors Julia Garner & Rory Culkin and in the past week I’ve been able to see those talents continue to shine onscreen in two new features. Julia Garner was wonderful in the modestly enjoyable Lily Tomlin comedy Grandma & now I’ve seen Rory Culkin excel in the titular role of the much bleaker, much superior Gabriel.
Gabriel follows a very eventful 48 hours or so in the life of its titular protagonist, a mentally ill Rory Culkin on weekend leave from an institution. Supposed to be in the care of his nerve-wracked family, Gabriel hatches several escapes as a means to find & propose marriage to an old flame, Alice. When the movie begins, a medicated, sluggish, but quick to anger Gabriel is somewhat creepy in his attempts to hunt down Alice, especially in a scene where he’s fawning over precious objects in her vacant bedroom, huffing her bed smells like Michal Ealy in The Perfect Guy. Even in these scenes, where Gabriel might potentially be a dangerous creep, he’s our dangerous creep and it’s easy to identify with his foolhardy attempts to reach Alice & propose marriage. If, as Roger Ebert used to say, movies are a machine that generate empathy, Garbiel is a highly efficient machine, one that reveals more & more empathetic layers to a troubled, chemically imbalanced protagonist who is extremely confused & vulnerable because of a physiological malfunction beyond his control.
Rory Culkin is immensely impressive in his featured role as Gabriel. The movie asks a lot of him, playing a wide range of notes that include the desperation of a knife-wielding maniac to the helplessness of a sick kitten. As the troubled protagonist begins to duck his medication, Gabriel gradually escalates its agitated nervousness to match his mental state & Culkin is incredibly adept every step of the way. There are some visual & aural touches that help convey this secondhand anxiousness, like obsessive focus on the patterns of tree branches & fan blades as well as vocal repetition & a nerve racking use of violins. However, no matter how much the film accomplishes visually, there’s no mistake that this is Rory Culkin’s show, as he can elicit just as much of that effect from a nervous chewing of his fingernails or a seemingly simple statement like “I’m not Dad.” The heart of Gabriel is an all-too believable, oppressively bleak look at the frustration of living with a familial history of mental illness & the vulnerability of not being able to help someone you love suppress the malfunctions of their mind & body. Still, it’s Culkin’s performance that brings to life the film’s emotional weight. After being captivated by him here & in Electrick Children, I’m eager to watch every role he can land in the years to come, the same dedication I’m eager to award Julia Garner.