(Possible spoilers, but I avoid many specifics)
There’s a scene in Wilson where our title character is on a road trip to reconnect with some important people in his life who are essentially strangers. The pervasive pop hit “Call Me Maybe” is on the radio as they’re searching for something substantial to listen to. They give it a chance, but not for very long before Wilson and friends join in ripping it apart. Whatever they may not have in common, they still share a basic opinion that society is beyond the point of no return as far as having a redeemable culture. Yet their sharing this moment is, we sense, an even greater kind of fun than if they liked the song.
Wilson is much like that scene, in as much as the enjoyment of the film is not strictly as we might expect. It’s not a bad film in any way—well-made, well-cast, with engaging and amusing dialogue. Yet Wilson is not bombastic and it doesn’t explode across the screen. Nor does it resort to making us feel good about ourselves and our characters, as so many indie films see as their duty. Wilson takes it upon itself to tell us a story truer to life than many we’ve seen before, and that’s not simply a code for saying the movie is about suffering and awfulness and the worst of humanity, which many people take as a truer vision of the world. What Wilson is ultimately about is how things never go the way we want them. Grand plans fall apart. Life does not take the turns we expect and we learn more from our moments of misery than our moments of great joy.
Throughout the film, Wilson (Woody Harrelson) wants more than he has. His only friend is moving to another city, leaving a hole in his life he’s intent to fill. One misguided attempt at making friends after another leaves him to investigate his old life, a relationship that we easily believe is the best he’s ever had, and yet it’s also clear it was pretty rocky in the best of times. This road seems to open up and take Wilson on exciting new paths, and he has happiness in his grasp, or close enough that it will finally be in his grasp, but the world lands on him in the most painful way again—less cosmic cruelty coming out of nowhere and more the results of his own impulsive and ridiculous actions. Yet Wilson goes on. He continues to look for meaning in the world and has hopes of the grand plan coming true for him. One bad thing and one unexpected thing combine, and before he’s aware of it, Wilson is living a life where happiness is possible—just not the happiness he expected, and not what he wanted. Rather than enjoying life at 11, he’s granted little moments of a 7 or 8. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Wilson’s great reward—as an audience, we’re not getting it any more than he is.
I saw Wilson twice, once in the theater, once on Blu-ray. All of the technical specs for this disc are great, and while it isn’t a jaw-dropping visual film like many others, it’s a brand new film artfully assembled with more attention to character and performances than showing us how artistic the filmmaker is. It’s a great Blu-ray presentation. What I noticed most about this film the second time through was that I did not feel the same lagging disappointment with how it reached its conclusion. It’s a spiritual sister to Ghost World, which is a better and more engaging film, but both are based on graphic novels by Daniel Clowes and both address misfits with bigger ideas than the people around them—and how those misfits come to terms with the lives they actually get. My disappointment had nothing to do with the film being good or bad. I just expected more “wow,” and I’d say the film is ultimately about how we don’t get “wow” in real life. Which is to say the “wow” travels beneath the surface of our skin and eventually sinks in. Wilson delivers “wow” after the fact.
Fans of indie films that play like modernized love stories of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s will probably find nothing to wow them in Wilson. However, if you’re looking for a filmmaking experience that sneaks up on you and makes you feel better about real life, Wilson is worth a viewing—or two.