The last film I saw at the Byrd Theatre was Sidney Lumet’s 1973 crime drama “Serpico,” a few days before the coronavirus triggered Virginia’s shutdown. Throughout my weeks of semi-isolation, I have thought of that wonderful, yet once unremarkable experience, as a harbinger of a lost paradise.
The virus is inflicting two forms of death: one physical and literal, the other the social death of a thousand cuts, every day offering a reminder of a nourishing institution and source of contact that’s either gone or imperiled. That’s why it’s our responsibility, for those blessed with disposable income, to help local totems such as the Byrd.
Watching movies online is not the same as seeing a show in the Byrd’s palatial auditorium, but at least we can help the theater while remaining in insolation. On the Byrd’s website there’s now a screening room page with a variety of films and specials, with ticket prices ranging from $12 to “pay what you can.” In most cases, a significant portion of the proceeds goes to the Byrd, and the donation page can also be found there.
Several titles feature significant actors and sound as if they pivot on inspirational themes. “The Etruscan Smile” stars Brian Cox as a Scotsman who travels to San Francisco for a medical treatment and bonds with his estranged son. “Driveways” is a story of family and neighbors featuring the recently deceased titan of theater, Brian Dennehy. There’s also “Other Music,” a documentary on the New York music store of the same name (featuring local Nicole Lang Key) and there’s even a 40-minute assemblage of footage from CatVideoFest, which might massage the pain of being unable to currently interact with neighborhood pets.
I watched two of the portal’s higher profile offerings, starting with Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You.” The British filmmaker, a decades-long chronicler of the working class, focuses on the exploitation of the gig economy, following a family that’s torn apart by low wages and endless hours. Loach is acutely aware of how the poverty-stricken are stuck in a financial whirlpool in which any even trivial happenstance can sink them.
Ricky (Kris Hitchen) finds a job as a delivery driver, under the supervision of Maloney (Ross Brewster), who explains that he’s not an employee of the depot but a freelancer who runs his own business. That rationale, as any freelancer knows, is justification for easy dismissal and denial of benefits, allowing companies to maximize profits and erode the stability of lower-wage employees. Ricky does well and plays along, until a series of family calamities forces him to tend to his personal life, for which Maloney shows not the slightest shred of remorse or empathy.
“Sorry We Missed You” holds you, functioning as an economic thriller, though Loach is so comfortable with his humanist sentiments that he allows a stasis to set in—the film is thematically cogent at the expense of drama. For example, what about the pressures that Maloney faces? Stéphane Brizé’s similarly themed 2015 “The Measure of a Man” is a richer and more challenging film for showing how a victim can be driven, via a capitalist system, to become a merciless authority figure in the key of a Maloney type.
The other film I watched on the Byrd’s screening portal was Sally Potter’s punishing “The Roads Not Taken,” which follows a middle-aged New York writer named Leo (Javier Bardem) as he undergoes a profound crisis. Barely articulate and often disoriented, cared for by his daughter (Elle Fanning) and a professional caregiver, Leo is suffering from a brain malady, which Potter coyly refuses to spell out, either for the sake of universality or a form of suspense that she never pays off.
Potter alternates between a day in the life of Leo and his pointedly unnamed daughter and visions Leo has of other lives, one in Mexico with an old love, Dolores (Salma Hayek), the other on a Greek island with a couple of attractive women who’re about the age of Leo’s daughter. Like Steven Soderbergh’s films, each thread is defined by a vivid sense of color contrast: New York is steeped in melancholy blue hues, Mexico is vibrant oranges and Greece is rendered in a more inviting blue that’s informed by the presence of the ocean.
These fragments are united by Leo’s selfishness. We learn, via scant bread crumbs of exposition, that Leo has disappointed every woman in his life, favoring his writing above all. His daughter is an aspiring writer who loses an assignment to care for him, despite his abandonment of her, and who grows enraged with anyone who questions his competency. Martyrdom drives “The Roads Not Taken.” Potter revels in the daughter’s emotional punishment and Leo’s disease comes to suggest the ultimate manifestation of his selfishness.
It’s perverse to put an actor as hearty and sensual as Bardem in such a limited role, which is the point. Bardem allows us to feel what we’re missing, though Fanning, a superb actress, is the heart of the film, offering minute behavioral variations on Potter’s numbing masochism.
Perhaps you’re better off donating $12 to the Byrd and revisiting Bardem in the vastly superior, similarly themed “The Sea Inside.”