Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"I don't feel anything except lost." Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge (1996)

One of the best little films of the nineties, Steve Buscemi's bruising Trees Lounge remains one of the most memorable, if often ignored, movies from an extremely interesting period in American Film History. Working from a powerfully subtle script from his own pen, Buscemi's Trees Lounge is an extremely well-rendered and moving work that stands as a incredible ensemble piece as well as a haunting portrait of a man likely doomed to isolation.

Out of work mechanic Tommy Basilio has reached a point in his life that has seen him cross over from casual drinker to full blown alcoholic, and he has become a man who seems to fuck up every opportunity that comes his way. Still pining for his ex-girlfriend, whose now dating his former best-friend and boss, Tommy spends the majority of his days at Trees Lounge, a sad little bar that contains more human tragedy per square foot than most places can even hold.

Steve Buscemi was closing in on forty when he delivered Trees Lounge to a mostly unreceptive public in 1996. Buscemi was already a well-established character actor by the mid nineties but he had held a long-time ambition to turn his attention behind the camera. Trees Lounge would be his first full length feature and boy is it a doozy. Containing the kind of heartfelt emotion and searing subtlety that even some of the most seasoned great filmmakers couldn't match, Trees Lounge immediately established Buscemi as a powerhouse filmmaker in the making. His first film is a model independent production that is both wonderfully economical and undeniably ambitious. Taking dramatic cues from the works of John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese, as well as the comic touches from the early works of Elaine May and Susan Seidelman, Trees Lounge is a classic seventies styled piece of American movie making, a work driven by dialogue and not action where even a throwaway line contains profound keys to the unforgettable characters Buscemi created.

While Trees Lounge is ultimately the portrait of the probably doomed Tommy Basilio, played with a beautiful and almost poetic simplicity by Buscemi himself, the film is filled with a number of dazzling performances from the rather awe-inspiring cast assembled for the film. Mark Boone Junior, Elizabeth Bracco, Carol Kane and Anthony LaPaglia all give wonderfully realized supporting turns in the film, while Seymore Cassel, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Debi Mazar and Kevin Corrigan all make the mos of the small but pivotal roles. Best of all is Moon in the Gutter favorite Chloë Sevigny, who shot Trees Lounge shortly after her groundbreaking turn in Larry Clark's Kids (1995). Sevigny projects a haunting vulnerability in the role as a seventeen year old kid that Tommy foolishly becomes involved with and controls every scene she appears in.

Shot in a no-nonsense style by cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, Trees Lounge was probably a little too low-key for American audiences, who were being bombarded with mostly empty Pulp Fiction inspired pieces, in the mid-nineties. Buscemi's film did receive quite a bit of critical acclaim though and got a couple of Independent Spirit Nominations for Buscemi's extraordinary script. Thankfully Buscemi has continued to direct although none of his follow-up films, as valuable as they are, have quite matched Trees Lounge.

Trees Lounge, which I am happy to say I managed to catch during its brief theatrical run at a showing at Lexington's great Kentucky Theater in 1996, was granted a special edition Laser Disc issue but the Lions Gate DVD is sadly lacking any extras. A Blu-ray release with Buscemi commentary would be a great release and I would be first in line for it.
Trees Lounge is a really special film that has always deserved a
larger, and more appreciative, audience.


Will Errickson said...

Excellent and insightful review, Jeremy! Watched this again recently on Netflix Instant; hadn't seen it since it was out. Fell in (illicit) love with Chloe all over again.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Will! I am glad to hear that I am not the only one who admires this great lttle film.