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. 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. 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, he has a point. 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 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.
This structure is trės '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. My obnoxious optimism resists Anesthesia's cynical assumption that deep down, we're all bereft. Still, Nelson convincingly demonstrates that everyone in his fictional world is fucked.