In the opening shot of Tim Blake Nelson's Anesthesia, the great character actor's fifth and most ambitious film as a writer-director, the screen is suddenly filled with the face of an old man (Sam Waterston) crossing a New York street, fully alert and demanding to be seen. Walter is a philosophy professor, though we don't know that yet. Before we find out anything about him, he's stabbed in a random attack. "It's was perfectly senseless," he croaks to hapless witnesses Sam (Corey Stoll) and Nicole (Mickey Sumner).
He would know. Walter has dedicated his intellectual life to proving that life is callow. Soon, the film rewinds and he's warning his Columbia undergrads that "humanity's sole trajectory is toward the grave." From what we've seen of his near-future, he has a point. Even so, Nelson sets out to keep proving it. In interwoven story threads, we explore the despair of everyone Walter knows, or will know: his wife (Glenn Close); his cowed son (Nelson) and daughter-in-law (Jessica Hecht), who's just found a cancerous lump; and their teen children Hal (Ben Konigsberg) and Ella (Hannah Marks), who get high on the roof to cope with their parents. There's Walter's bright-but-damaged student Sophie (Kristen Stewart), who's absorbed his fatalism and channels it in dangerous ways. Then there are Sam and Nicole, who we discover is his mistress. His wife Sarah (Gretchen Mol, hilarious) is an Ivy League graduate-turned-unhappy homemaker who drinks too much and flips the middle finger at the snots who clog up the carpool lane at her daughters' school. Finally, even further off Walter's radius is millionaire lawyer Jeffrey (Michael K. Williams) who has taken some — not much — time away from a big-bucks trial to strong-arm his childhood friend Joe (K. Todd Freedman), a heroin addict, into rehab.
This overlapping structure is très '90s, but it fits Nelson's view of mankind as interlopers continuously crowding out each other's happiness. Here, people barge in on each other naked, lie shamelessly and shamefully, demand sacrifices and withhold affection. In short, they're human, which means we're obligated to forgive their selfishness lest anyone point out ours.
Nelson makes their choices understandable, if not commendable. Sam cheats because he's blundered into a pre-scripted Good Life he never questioned. "We talked about the movies we saw more than our future together," he sighs to his lover Nicole, who gazes at him with a stoicism made of equal parts empathy and fear that this tragic ass could do the same thing with her. But Sam means it when he says he loves her, or at least he thinks he does because he needs to mean it for his own salvation. Intention counts, at least a little. And there's an argument that it's more moral to spend your time on earth loving people, even if that clashes with some earlier, ill-thought vow.
Anesthesia doesn't cast judgment. Instead, Nelson slowly reveals awful things about his characters after we've decided to like them. I admire the film's vigor, even if it at moments feels like a cruel, clumsy trick. Take that first-scene stabbing. After Nelson soaks in Waterston's face, ruddy with the cold and as vibrantly un-airbrushed as anything I've seen onscreen in years, the camera stays planted as a wounded Walter walks to a corner bodega across the street. It's so far away that we can't hear the action. Instead, we're left to make our own assumptions about what happens next. Walter goes inside and we watch a black man on the corner crack jokes with a group of friends. It's a charming neighborhood scene. The friends leave, then two white girls exit the shop and pause in front of the joker, followed a beat later by Walter, who shoos the stranger away. In one minute, we've turned around on him. Could this bright-eyed grandpa be a bigot? But right afterward, Walter's attacked by that same man, and we're scrambled again. Is the film implying that his racial profiling was right?
More likely, Nelson believes that no action is ever right or wrong. And if life is pain, there's no need to punish people who are already punishing themselves. The anesthesia of the title refers to what each character does to escape their misery: sex, wine, weed, junk and even the chilly disengagement of words, mental chicanery that only fools some people some of the time. When Sarah asks her friend, a childless Manhattan banker, if she'd trade lives, the woman chirps, "Conceptually, in a second." Later, Jeffrey calls Joe at the clinic and adopts a slick cheer. "How are you faring?" he says. "Faring?" groans Joe, who's spent the morning strapped to a cot. "What am I, on a motherfucking yacht?"
I was eventually won over by Nelson's arch dialogue, even though it often sounds more like proclamations than conversation. Then again, the time constraints of a 12-character drama don't leave much space for chitchat. Every time we check in with someone, they're talking about the meaning of life. I wanted more time with almost all of the subplots — I got invested in their small, relatable agonies — which is both a complaint and a compliment. The exception is Stewart's dour co-ed Sophie, a cliché saddled with the "girl-in-torment" shorthand of self-harming herself to feel alive, even pulling down her pants to prove it. It's not Stewart's fault. She gives the role more than it deserves. If only her character had held up to the promise of her first scene, where a douchebro classmate grabs the spare chair at her table without asking and she can't let the slight go. Sophie doesn't want him to give back the chair; she just wants to know why he acted like she doesn't exist.
I nodded along with Sophie's tirade against a society that's as plugged into its phones as it is to the people on the other end even as my obnoxious optimism resisted Anesthesia's assumption that deep down, we're all bereft. Still, Nelson convincingly demonstrates that everyone in his fictional world is fucked. Close's wife is the happiest one we meet, and she's spent decades with a grouch. What then to make of Walter's closing lecture that his class — Sophie's über-wired generation — can rescue humanity? "You carry the light," he urges. They give him a standing ovation. This cynical film gives us no faith in their capacity to change. But perhaps all that matters is they try.