Against the Current
As Paul Thompson in the surprising and moving Against the Current, Joseph Fiennes has the deep, burned out eyes of a man who no longer cares for life and yearns for his misery to end. Yet he still has a dream: to swim the length (150 miles) of the Lower Hudson River. He also has another goal when he completes the first one: to make a decision whether or not to kill himself.
It’s not easy to pull off a film about a thirty-something, handsome man like Paul who is still wallowing in excruciating despair five years after the tragic death of his wife and child. Director Peter Callahan wisely lightened up the film’s mood by choosing to send a couple of fun, cool friends along with the bummed-out widower for the big swim: Jeff (Justin Kirk) and Liz (Elizabeth Reaser). Their job, along with providing emotional support, is to drive a boat alongside Paul as he swims. Paul climbs aboard for rest periods after pushing himself to meet daily mileage goals.
Philosophically, the film asks the questions: do some people get more pain than they can bear? Is there a point at which a person knows the struggle to overcome is fruitless? Played powerfully and nobly by Fiennes, Paul needs to swim the river to prove he tried to swim through the tears of his grief. After that, he will know in his heart what he must do.
But it is Justin Kirk who makes the movie come alive: every gesture, remark and expression add up to a totally riveting performance. As Jeff, Kirk plays a sarcastic realist who also has a heart of gold that he keeps under wraps by cranking out lots of wisecracks and indulging in childish silliness. A solid loyal friend, he offers Paul a generosity of spirit and empathy while simultaneously brooking no pact-breaking nonsense. (After the death of Paul's pregnant wife, Jeff made Paul pledge not to kill himself for at least five years.) Jeff hopes Paul will work through his pain and get to the other side of it. It is now five years later and the pact will expire as soon as Paul finally emerges from his watery trial onto land in Manhattan.
Also along for the ride is Liz, a woman Paul met at a bar. She is searching for direction in life and, without knowing fully the extent of Paul’s inner turmoil, agrees to accompany the guys to help on the boat. She wants to have a fun adventure and just plain have a get-away from the limbo-like life she is leading. Little does she know what lies beneath the surface of this trip.
As the boat moves further along the Hudson, the friends decide to make a pit stop at Liz’s mother’s house, as she lives close by. The mother, played by the vivacious, triumphant Mary Tyler Moore, is all manic energy, nosiness, advice and fist-pumping optimism. Moore enters the tragic tale with a bang and speed-delivers a refreshing dose of comedy.
The metaphor of river as life could have been yawn-inducing, but in this director’s hands, it is beautifully and richly alive. The murky darkness of the river matches Paul’s mood while the summer sky overhead seems like a call to the brightness of hope and better times.