Oliver Sherman — and (my) problems with Canadian films

I want to write about the movie Oliver Sherman, which I just caught on DVD. It might seem odd to devote an entire blog post to a movie from some three or so years ago, and one that isn’t that famous to begin with. But Oliver Sherman is, in many ways, typical of a certain kind of Canadian movie…and reflects a lot of things I don’t like about Canadian movies.

That’s why I want to delve into it. I’m writing this both as a comment on Oliver Sherman…but also as an exploration of my opinions. Part of the myth of critics is that they are somehow an unbiased arbiter, with universal tastes by which they can judge any and all movies.

I’ve liked just about any kind of film — from Saturday matinee adventures to contemplative Art-house treatises. And anything I say I don’t like in a movie, I can point to the exception where I loved it. But as a general rule, I don’t like movies where scenes without dialogue (shots of the actors sitting brooding in a chair, or panoramic vistas of the horizon) outnumber scenes with dialogue — a category to which Oliver Sherman belongs.

Still, I’m writing this as a chance not just to say what I didn’t like, but to delve a bit more into why I didn’t like it (something a newspaper reviewer writing 500 words can’t always do) and to consider it in the context of other films — Oliver Sherman an example of broader issues.

Now, before we go further, let me point out the movie got mixed reviews — “mixed” meaning it got some good reviews, too. It was an “official selection” at some film festival, won “Best Canadian feature” at another, and so on. So put my ensuing comments in that context. In fact, here’s a really nice write up in the Toronto Star — glance over that then nip back here. I’ll wait.

Dum-de-dum-de-dum.

Okay — back?

At the same time, the general reaction was mixed. So maybe my comments will be of value to later filmmakers honing their craft.

Oliver Sherman centres on three characters, Franklin and his wife (played by Donal Logue and Molly Parker) who, with kids, live on a small town farm, and Franklin’s old army buddy, Sherman (played by American actor Garret Dillahunt), who shows up on his doorstep. While Franklin has readjusted to civilian life, Sherman has spent his post-war years as a drifter and probably still suffering from a brain injury (more on that anon). Because Franklin is a kind-hearted, Christian soul, he invites Sherman to stay for a while. Part of Franklin’s motive is a kind of survivor’s guilt — Sherman is the man he might’ve become himself.

Sherman is kind of creepy — unfailingly polite (“yes, ma’am”), but definitely a few rungs shy of a ladder in the sort of role Dillahunt almost has a lock on.

And, um…that’s about it. There are scenes of uncomfortableness, like at an awkward dinner party, and a low key murmur of suspense as we wonder if Sherman is dangerous. There’s sort of a climax — I suppose. But viewed another way, the movie is a shaggy dog story.

Oliver Sherman is typical of a lot of Canadian movies…and typical of things that I don’t like about a lot of Canadian movies.

One thing relates to my recurring pet peeve: Canadian movies that don’t admit they are Canadian. In this case, Oliver Sherman goes for an “Anytown, North America” vibe — the town is just the “town”, references to big cities are just to the “city”, even the war that so scarred Sherman is left unnamed.

Doing such “anonymous” settings can be effective — particularly with a kind of Kafka-esque surrealism. I can also recognize the technical dilemma, the filmmaker hoping to avoid armchair combat historians from nitpicking over minutia. And filmmakers often claim they use the “Anytown, North America” model because the pressure was on them to set the story in the United States.

Except, first time filmmaker Ryan Redford claimed in interviews (like here) that executives wanted him to set the story in Canada. Even co-star Donal Logue suggested that he would’ve like to have seen the story more explicitly Canadian!

Now as I say: there are reasons, creative and commercial, for not wanting to set a movie in Canada. But here’s the counter argument: it hurts the narrative. For a story all about real people, struggling with real dilemmas…the fact that they don’t seem to live in a real environment hurts it. Personally, I found it distracting, pushing me out of the story every time it was so obvious the dialogue was being skewed so as not to say anything too specific. In another interview, Redford suggested he was going for a deliberate lack of reality — but if so, I’d suggest he doesn’t quite pull it off. The movie feels too “kitchen sink” to quite achieve the ambience of a modern fable, ala, say, Days of Heaven — and though I would argue some of the dialogue is heavy handed (as characters basically state their emotions and motives) that feels like clumsy writing more than a style.

When you think about just how many Canadian movies either (A) pretend they are set in the U.S. (B) go for an Anytown, North America feel or (C) admit they are Canadian but only in the most unobtrusive, unspecific ways (a flash of currency, a red mail box in the background) Redford is no rebel — he’s the status quo.

Now as I say: the fable set in an anonymous setting can be fine. I mentioned Days of Heaven, or there was the movie Figures in a Landscape. Sometimes it can represent a genuine artistic vision…but sometimes it’s symptomatic of broader problems.

By not setting the story in Canada, or referencing real cities and real events, the environment feels …unformed. Like an artist who drew the subject of his painting but couldn’t be bothered to fill in the background that would give it context. Everything has a similar lack of definition: Franklin goes to work at a factory…but I’m not sure if we ever really know what he does. He and his wife are Catholic (which gives them some definition) but beyond that, we don’t know much about them. Sherman reads generic war books. And the movie lacks much in the way of a…plot. Most of it is just the three characters on the same sets having similar conversations about the same things.

And this gets into another problem I have with this and many other such movies. Oliver Sherman no doubt sees itself as a “character drama”. As well, it’s about “theme” — war and its aftermath. So, goes the thinking, a plot is something only stupid people need to hold their attention…not the sophisticates who will enjoy this film.

But here’s my argument: plot is how we learn about and define the characters — as they react and adjust to changing events. A character drama without a plot is a bit like my earlier analogy of a painting without a background.

Now, before we get much further, let’s define our terms. So for the sake of discussion (regardless of Dictionary criteria) let’s make a distinction between “plot“…and “premise“.

“Damaged war veteran comes to stay with old war buddy and family, leading to uncomfortable tension” is a premise…it’s not a plot.

If the movie can be described in a sentence or two, and you’ve then pretty much seen the film, then it’s a bit weak in the plot department. If a lot of the scenes could be moved around, the order jumbled — or some dropped entirely — without it affecting our understanding of the narrative…the plot is too thin.

I was going to make a facetious example of premise/plot by citing Star Wars — but then thought of a more relevant example. The American film The Way, starring Martin Sheen, is closer in style to Oliver Sherman. I don’t mean: “If you like Oliver Sherman then you’ll love The Way!” Not at all — completely different movies. The Way is lighter, more a comedy-drama. I simply mean it’s in that middle groove of being the sort of thing you could see playing festivals or rep cinemas…without being pretentious or inaccessible. The Way has a very simple premise: “After his son dies while trying to complete the Camino pilgrimage, a man impulsively sets out to complete the journey himself.” But that doesn’t describe the characters he meets on the way, it doesn’t describe the incidents along the route; it doesn’t touch on the fact that Sheen’s character’s life priorities have been altered by the end (while characters in Oliver Sherman are pretty much the same by the end as they were at the beginning). So even though The Way has a ridiculously simple premise…there’s much more to its plot.

Given Oliver Sherman isn’t really about exploring details (in terms of setting or the war), or about any mystery (there are no secret back stories or surprise revelations), it all gets down to the characters. And I suppose you could say it’s more character “study” than character “development”. Our perception of Sherman by the end of the film isn’t substantially different than it was in the opening scene. While Logue and Parker’s characters follow a pretty obvious arc.

For a movie primarily about “character”, personally I thought there was a major grey hole right at the centre of the film. Namely: how are we supposed to perceive Sherman? On one hand, the movie seems like it’s about the emotional scars of war. Parker’s character frequently makes a point as if Sherman has to take responsibility for his life — that it’s for him to move on emotionally, to get over it. But here’s the thing: Sherman received a brain injury in the war, and seven years later is still living on a disability pension. Maybe it’s just a problem with how Dillahunt plays him (as Dillahunt often plays such characters) but the fact remains, it’s hard to see Sherman’s problems being his attitude, anymore than we would say a vet in a wheelchair has to take responsibility for not walking.

If Sherman is suffering from emotional scars, it’s a character study. If he’s suffering from physical brain damage, he’s basically a plot device. The movie is still about the consequences of war, how it destroys people. But it influences our perception of the events. For that matter, was Sherman shattered by war…or was he always a borderline psycho who only found his true calling on the battlefield? Such ambiguity might work in a film with — wait for it — a plot! But not when it’s basically the whole raison d’etre.

Oliver Sherman has strengths.

The performances from the three leads are certainly fine. And for all my criticism of a thin plot and vague characterization, at least it has a fairly clear theme and narrative thread. It’s slow and a tad repetitious…but at least you know what it’s about while watching. When the end credits start rolling it doesn’t leave you going: “WTF?” Indeed, what’s most frustrating about the movie is that, in its concepts and ideas, there’s a feeling it could’ve been quite good…if it had just been beefed up and developed more. Logue and Parker’s character are sympathetic — heck, Logue’s character is such a nice guy he’s practically a Saint! There’s nothing, technically, about Oliver Sherman that would make me think write-director Ryan Redford was incapable of making a good film…as long as he gets over his Canadian Film 101 hubris.

And this is my point — indeed, my main reason for posting this — that there’s nothing unusual about Oliver Sherman.

You could replace Oliver Sherman with Small Town Murder Song, or Sarah Polley’s Away from Her or a dozen others and most of my above critiques would still apply. A slow, deliberate pace relying more on the cinematography than the script; plot that would barely justify a short film; a character drama where the characters feel vague or are ciphers for the themes; all resulting in a certain vagueness.

But, hey — that’s just me.

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