Trees Lounge (1996)

Directed by Steve Buscemi

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Trees Lounge has the feeling of a Jim Jarmusch film, something between Stranger Than ParadiseBroken Flowers and 2016’s Paterson.  It’s a combination of unique portraits of oddball, melancholic characters and features a cast that could be pulled straight from a Jarmusch film.  Familiar faces like Chloë Sevigny (Broken Flowers), Samuel L. Jackson, Eszter Balint (Stranger Than Paradise), Steve Buscemi (Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes) along with the Tom Waits-esque Mark Boone Junior dominate the cast, and all of the side characters are fully realized like in the best of Jarmusch’s movies.

Each of these characters can explain their sadness with a simple glance.  We follow Tommy (Buscemi) around for much of the film, but we understand who he is pretty quickly, all we have to do is look.  Tommy spends his days hanging out at a Long Island dive bar where he is one of a handful of sad regulars, making this a more grim version of Cheers.

Tommy is an alcoholic, to be sure, but this isn’t the kind of paralyzing alcoholism you see in The Lost Weekend (1945) or Leaving Las Vegas (1995).  There are no hallucinations or even slurred speech.  Tommy would drink the day away if left to his own devices, but he remains functional enough to look for work even if he’s not functional enough to hold down a steady job.

The various burned bridges in his life are established pretty early.  He’s a mechanic whose best friend fired him and either right before or right after began dating his ex-girlfriend who is pregnant with what may be Tommy’s own child.  Tommy’s brother works at the same auto body shop, and Tommy thinks he ratted him out when it was discovered that he stole $1,500 from his best friend, aka his boss.

Tommy loiters around the shop, trying to intimidate that old best friend, Rob (Anthony LaPaglia) and his ex-girlfriend Theresa (Elizabeth Bracco).  The story that follows doesn’t bother to set up or wrap up a series of plot lines but rather introduces us to Tommy’s world.  While he is the main character he is hardly the hero, and the troubles he feels are hardly unique.

We will spend time with another regular at the bar, Mike (Mark Boone Junior), who has recently watched his wife take their daughter and move out but can hardly be bothered to do anything about it.  Just as Tommy occasionally pines for Theresa, Mike half-heartedly tries to bring his family back together.

Another similarity between Mike and Tommy is that they both have enough of a structure around them to enable their drinking.  While Tommy does take a few steps towards looking for work (before eventually taking over the ice cream truck left behind by a recently deceased uncle), Mike runs his own moving company.  We see him demonstrate enough responsibility to suggest he’s made something of himself, but then we watch him take all that goodwill and set it on fire.

The two men’s storylines will briefly intersect but only because they have no one else.  They are visited by people who mean something to them but whom they don’t bother to keep close, and all that leaves is each other, like they’re continually backing away from the world until they themselves make contact.

In each case their stories don’t end well but neither do they end disastrously.  When the story ends it feels as though they might have finally reached their rock bottom moment, but again because things could always be worse it suggests they only have further to fall.

I kind of love this movie in the same way I like many of Jim Jarmusch’s films.  They are quirky and sad, and in the subtlest of ways they establish complex characters and environments.  We only deal with a handful of characters here, but the way Buscemi films them and then spends time on characters who they briefly run into, we get the impression that those side characters are immersed in troubles as unique as the main characters.

We only get a handful of shots of an aging drunk…

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…but we know this is who Tommy is on the road to becoming.  We similarly only see the two bartenders who split shifts at Trees Lounge, but after a handful of minutes we know them well.  The way they unceremoniously kick Tommy and the others out during closing time, and the way they speak to their customers, like distant relatives, says a lot more than their specific dialogue.

Trees Lounge is like an Edward Hopper painting but a much more melancholic one.  It’s a living, breathing painting.  It starts on a static shot inside the bar and ends there too.  By the time the movie ends, because of the cyclical nature of Tommy’s life, you might feel like you’ve gone nowhere, but you’ve picked something up (even if just a wake up call or a warning) along the way.

Up Next: Patriot Games (1992), Leave No Trace (2018), Damsel (2018)

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