Jesse barely says a word throughout, and the voiceover is interestingly only occupied by the grown-up melodramas. Half the time I would interrupt the cool voice and say, “How is Jesse doing? What are his interests? Does he have friends? How is he doing? Why doesn’t anyone care about how Jesse is doing? ” That’s what the distant style gives, and that’s what recalls Henry James’s short story. The adults are so self-absorbed, so defensive, that they unleash all their nastiness on a six-year-old without even considering the effect.
I read a review of “The Cathedral” where Jesse is inexplicably described as “calm and unruffled”. I saw a child who feels that the adults around him are unpredictable, selfish and petty. Understandably, he distances himself as a survival technique.
The actor in “Cathedral” feels “caught on camera” rather than “performed”. The acting is reminiscent of what Joanna Hogg’s actors achieve: Hogg places the camera at the edge of a room and lets people walk in and out of the frame, conversations overheard from the next room. This requires a documentary-like reality in performance. D’Ambrose focuses on feet, hands, auxiliary details as conversations are heard in voiceover: sometimes the conversation is polite banter, but with all this underlying stuff below. Actors have to be so careful with this style. Even with only one or two close-ups, Brian d’Arcy James gives an extremely perceptive (and disturbing) performance of a man seething with self-pity and rage, who feels the world has failed him, who feels like the world. should be more accommodating to him. At one point, on a gloomy vacation to Atlantic City with his son and his new wife, all the hotels are booked up since he called at the last minute. He hangs up the phone and says, “Nothing is easy.” Richard can be scary. He ruins family gatherings. Everyone cowers, afraid of what he will do.
Late in the film, teenage Jesse, who is interested in photography and filmmaking, explains (in voiceover, presumably in a class) what a picture of his two aunts floating on his parents’ bed, in happier days, means to him. Jesse analyzes the space, the light, details we’ve already seen in still life scattered throughout the film. There is a sadness in this monologue, although the sadness is subtext, not text. Jesse’s focus is on the material details. The chaos of his childhood—the pain inflicted on him by the adults around him behaving in terrifyingly unforgiving ways—is there for him in the way light falls on a rug. It will always be with him.
Now playing in select theaters.