There’s this uncomfortable, punishing sadness that you can’t stop feeling while you watch Gabriel, and all of it comes from Rory Culkin’s tremendous performance as the film’s driver, pushing us along a slippery road littered with bad decisions and good intentions. Yeah, you don’t feel great watching this movie, but it’s great how much it actually makes you feel. You feel for Gabriel and you feel for his family. You feel all these little things about love, obsession and mental illness, and you begin to question where to draw the line when you’re chasing something that means everything.
For Gabriel, there is no line and that’s the problem. Convinced he’s meant to reunite with his first love, he sets off on a journey to find her and live happily ever after. But Gabriel doesn’t understand that years have passed since he’s engaged in any sort of healthy relationship. He’s sick and delusional, and while he desperately clings to the one bit of “normal” he still remembers (and feels), his latest course of action may ultimately destroy his life forever.
Out of the seven Culkin kids, it was really Kieran and Rory who jumped into acting alongside Macauley, with Rory starting off by playing younger versions of his older brothers in their movies (see: Igby Goes Down). That changed for the youngest Culkin sibling when he was cast in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, and since then his biggest movie may be Scream 4, but he’s always done solid work playing in those darker corners. His two suburban-fueled dark comedies, The Chumscrubber and Lymelife, were particularly memorable, but he hasn’t come close to the kind of performance he delivers in Gabriel.
Culkin never plays Gabriel over the top; instead, there’s this unsettling subtlety in everything he does. He’s not completely deranged, but he’s not quite right — and that balance is what both the character and audience struggle with throughout the film. On one hand you admire his determination to track down what he thinks is the answer to all his problems, but you also fear for this girl. What’s he going to do once he finds her? What happens then?
Well, what happens then is the best part of the movie. It’s scary, unexpected and oddly romantic, and you begin to understand that Gabriel’s sickness is so rich and complex, it’s impossible to control. But that’s what makes mental illness so dangerous: it’s spontaneity. It just goes where it goes, and if you’re in its way, there are always consequences.
Gabriel is the directorial debut of director Lou Howe, who was inspired to write the film after his college roommate was diagnosed with schizophrenia during his freshman year. Living that close to a damaged mind is what makes his film feel so authentic. Many people will watch Gabriel and it will remind them of someone they know; someone they love.
For me it reminded me of my cousin, who has her good days and her bad. Sometimes she thinks the government is poisoning her home and that Hollywood is making a movie about it, but then other times the old version of her– the one I grew up with; the one I lived with during college– peers out long enough to make you feel like she’s beating this. That she’s going to be okay.
And then it’s not.
But that’s the vicious cycle of mental illness. It’s emotionally draining and sometimes all you can do is hang on to the little parts of the person you once knew. You hang on to those parts; those feelings. Those memories of what once was. You try to be there, and you try to be supportive even if you’ll never understand what’s going on in their head. And then you hope. You hope they take their meds, and you hope those meds work. You hope they go back to the person they used to be, and you hope everything will be just fine.
There’s a lot of that hope going around in Gabriel, which unfortunately proves that it takes a lot more than hope to conquer.
Gabriel is currently screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. For more of our Tribeca fest coverage, head here.
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