THUMBSUCKER written and directed by Mike Mills, from the novel by Walter Kirn, with Lou Taylor Pucci, Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Benjamin Bratt, Vince Vaughn and Kelli Garner. 96 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (October 7). For venues and times, see Movies, page 99. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Park City, Utah - It takes a few minutes, but Tilda Swinton finally admits she has no idea what she's talking about.
Deposited in front of me for a quick interview in the crush of the Sundance Film Festival, she begins by describing her Thumbsucker character in clear, bold terms. "She is a wife and mother who steps beyond the pale," she says in her crisp, patrician voice.
"I think it's interesting to look at that filigree element of an identity struggle. It's much more muted and messier than when you're dealing with something more up front, like a film like Orlando or Female Perversions. But it's the same thing," she says, conclusively. Then she asks, "Does that make sense?"
Finally, she allows that maybe she's not being clear.
To anyone who followed Brit cinema in the 80s and early 90s, Swinton is a goddess, but a goddess of difficult things. In her six films with Derek Jarman and the spectacular parallel work she did in Orlando, Friendship's Death and a series of performance projects, she became a searing, androgynous instrument of critique. She was cinema's semiotic avenger.
So a Tilda Swinton mom can't be just any mom.
"There's a fantasy in mainstream drama," she says, "that people know what they mean to say and they say it. A lot of writing is that way. A lot of drama is directed that way, and a lot of acting is performed that way. Well, I'm not a believer in that. It's not what I see in the world.
"Even now, talking to you, I am struggling to find the words. I'm thinking as well as talking and I'm trying to get my thinking and talking in gear. But there's a doubt in my face and in my mind about whether I'm actually doing that. That's real to me."
Doubt, she declares, is why she and Thumbsucker director Mike Mills got along so well.
"Doubt and mess and the idea that we're all scared little animals - it's in everything in the film," she says. "It's in the aesthetic of the film, it's in the way the camera frames us, it's in the way we relate to each other physically."
Swinton, the daughter of a Scottish major general, went to the same boarding school Princess Diana attended. She inherited certainty. But by all reports she came alive studying literature and politics at Cambridge, and her seven years working with Jarman radicalized her sense of what movies could do.
But it's a legacy she doesn't often look back on. Reminded of Friendship's Death, she practically gasps.
"That's a wonderful film! That was the second film I ever made, after Caravaggio." Then she stops and asks, "Do you know what that is? That's 20 years ago. Twenty years. That's amazing. God." She pauses again, and it's like the Sundance fog has lifted.
"You see, there you are, that's real. I am not actually 19 years old, but I feel like I am. I can't believe that it's possible to say the sentence, 'I've been making films for 20 years. '"
When Jarman died in 1994, "I kind of lost my day job," she jokes softly. "There was a hiatus and a regrouping. The next stage for me was to begin to find new families. I've been really lucky that way. I'm taking what I learned then and realizing that it can happen elsewhere. It can happen in America in a way that it can't happen in the UK anymore."
And so the avenger matured.
"One of the only advantages of advanced capitalism as displayed in the United States," she says, "is that filmmakers know they've got to do it by themselves. They're not stamping their feet because nobody's giving them money. They just go out and do it."
Lou Taylor Pucci stars as a teenager running a gauntlet of oddball adults all trying to rid him of his thumb-sucking habit. Vincent D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton are his parents, but the quirks amp up with Keanu Reeves as a New Age dentist and Vince Vaughn as a surprisingly earnest teacher.
Playing what once would have been a Johnny Depp role, Pucci looks sufficiently pale and vulnerable but can't translate his character's angst into engaging emotion. Director Mills comes to this indiewood world from music videos and steers the film straighter than Gus Van Sant and moister than Wes Anderson. Still, it's an acquired taste.