Michael Shannon steps behind the camera to direct the film version of a play written by good friend and award-winning writer Brett Neveu. The 2002 play, “Eric LaRue,” deals with the aftermath of a school shooting. It does not focus on the crime itself, but on the effect the murders have on the shooter’s parents and on the community, at large. The film premiered at Tribeca and played the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on Friday, the 13th of October, 2023.
Four films come to mind that “Eric LaRue” resembles: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011); “Mass” (2021) “Vox Lux” (2018); and 2010’s “Beautiful Boy.” In each case, the school shooting plunges the families of those involved into chaos. In this film, the entire community is upset. Janice works at Dellride’s Rightsmart and the floor manager, Jack (Lawrence Grimm), while vaping outside the store, tells Janice that her return to work has upset everyone and she should take another 2 to 4 months off. When Janice asks what she should do during that time, he says, “Meditate. Read a book.” Nobody wants to be around Janice. However, often working is what helps keep a traumatized person sane.
Shannon, in the Q&A following the film’s screening at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival, said, “This movie really seemed to be about this country. Only one word sums it up: confusion. The country doesn’t make any f***** sense, so I wanted to make a movie about that, and I did.” Indeed, at one point, in a climactic scene opposite his mother Janice (Judy Greer) the title character, now in prison, says, “At the time, I thought I had no choice. Now it makes no sense.” Nation Sage Henrikson plays the teen-aged Eric in the film’s climactic scene. He adds, “Things got out of control in my mind and I screwed up.” The surprising thing is that Eric expresses and feels real remorse, while his mother seems bent on defending the indefensible. That made no sense. Referencing Director Shannon’s remarks at the beginning of this paragraph, that seems true of the nation and the world right now. (GOP, Israel, Ukraine, weather—no need to go on.)
The acting from this cast of luminaries is as good as it gets. For a small film, it has a stellar ensemble. Judy Greer (“The Village,” “Adaptation”) plays Janice, the mother of a school shooter, and Alexander Skarsgard (“Big Little Lies,” “Succession”) plays her husband, Ron LaRue. Tracy Letts—who has been in 5 pictures that were Best Picture nominated—plays Pastor Billy Verne at Redeemer Church. (Letts is better known for his play “August: Osage County” or “Killer Joe.” He appeared in “The Big Short” (2015); “The Post” (2017); “Lady Bird” (2017); “Ford vs. Ferrari” (2019) and “Little Women” (2019).)
Judy Greer carries this film on her slim shoulders. Her performance is Oscar caliber. Janice is doing her best to cope with the horror of her son’s actions. While Ron, her husband, turns to religion in a big way, Janice LaRue actively rejects giving her troubles to Jesus. She is trying to cope, but she has to do it her way, not her husband’s dictatorial way. Quoting 1st Timothy about a husband’s right to rule his household and apologizing to one of the mothers who lost a son in a teary breakdown is not cutting it for Janice, who tells Ron so. (Ron to Janice: “I don’t think you know what you think.”) For Janice, the “His blood will heal you” talk is not cutting it.
Plus, it appears that Ron’s attendance at Bible readings with Allison Pill may be thinly-concealed unconsummated lust. She is his manager at work and seems to be quite fond of hugging Ron at every opportunity in an overly flirtatious manner, whether appropriate or not. (“I’m the H.R. manager, so I make the rules.”) Ms. Pill does a great job with the part.
The discordant sounds of hymns that are off-key and Jonathan Madro’s original music add a lot to the mood, which is, as you would expect, grim and depressing.
Andrew Wheeler was the cinematographer and the Wilmington, North Carolina area is the film’s setting. The cast took up residence at the Residence Inn. They socialized nightly. Kate Arrington (who plays the mother of one of the murdered boys) is Michael Shannon’s wife and the mother of his two daughters. (Kate plays the mother who is working on forgiveness.)
There were a number of interesting shots in the film.
One was the close-up of a stained glass window that seems to show a Biblical figure about to cut his wrists with a wicked-looking dagger. Another was the truly inspired shot of the Bible-thumping Ron in a booth opposite a crowned-with-thorns Jesus, who is sipping a soft drink through a straw (while bleeding from his wounds). [Genius!] And, of course, there is the final scene, which was beautifully composed,with Janice walking away down a long gravel road and shedding her jacket as she goes. Does this symbolize Janet “walking away from” the entire situation? Or was it simply failure of the gymnast to stick the ending? Out of appreciation for the talents involved, I’ll stick with the former for what seemed like an anti-climactic ending.
There is A LOT of religious fervor shown onscreen and A LOT of quoting of religious phrases. A good editor could cut out about 20 to 30 minutes of this, as the film runs just one minute shy of 2 hours. There is also a great deal of plot devoted to which pastor (!st Presbyterian or Redeemer) will do the honors on assembling the mothers of the 3 slain boys in a meeting with Janice LaRue, the mother of the murderer. The entire middle of the film hinges on which pastor (Tracy Letts or Paul Sparks) will win out. Do we care? Some of us think it’s a lousy idea, since it could lead to more bloodshed. Stephanie Grazer (Annie Parisse) is embittered and blames Janice and her entire family. That seemed normal and logical. She asks the browbeaten Janice, “When you go home at night with your son in prison and your neck massage husband, are you happy?” (A: “No.”) That is right before Stephanie tells Janice to “Go to hell.” Stephanie also alludes to the family being outcasts long before Eric went postal, while Eric’s Mom retells stories of school bullying of her son.
When you have a character like Minister Steve Calhan moderating a potentially explosive meeting of three women (one woman, Laura, has gotten religion Big Time and does not attend the meeting at 1st Presbyterian, but is shown talking in tongues and having a fit at Redeemer Church with Janice’s husband Ron), you are asking for trouble. Example of Pastor Steve’s words of wisdom: “We all understand your involvement—that you weren’t involved.” (Eye roll). Steve Calhan seems out of his depth.
The logical end of the film might have been the prison meeting between Janice and Eric. The only way I “get” the walk-down-the-road ending is if Janice is walking away from it all (which she probably should have done much earlier in this film.)
I enjoyed Michael Shannon’s remarks about Janice being like a film director. Said Shannon, “People give you notes, and you either say (a) I’m not doing that (b) Why did they suggest that? Or (c) What’s a better thing I could do? I think Janice is like a film director in responding to her situation the same way.”
Shannon did not sound as though he was inspired to direct more movies. Said Shannon, “I can’t afford to make more movies. I can make more money kicking an ATM. It is impossible to get one made, impossible to fund them, and impossible to sell them.” He said, “We’re going to take something that is pretty much impossible and make it completely impossible.”
But, as Writer Brett Neveu said, “We were all working together to find the truth.”