Trees Lounge August 29, 2019
Mark Boone Junior
Samuel L. Jackson
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
heresa and Tommy (Elizabeth Bracco and Steve Buscemi) dated for about eight years. When we see them interact at the beginning of Trees Lounge (1996), though, we’d never guess, based on their exchange, that they had at any point even been friendly acquaintances. As the film opens, Theresa is picking up her boyfriend, the father of her child and Tommy’s old boss, Rob (Anthony LaPaglia), from work. Tommy, who
lost his job and Theresa almost concurrently recently, has a habit these days of emptily watching his co-workers move along without him from a distance. Today is one of those days. “Don’t look at him,” Theresa advises Rob when she realizes what’s going on.
Most of the people in Tommy’s life have opted to take a similar stance. His alcoholism and intermittent drug use have taken over his life to the degree that his loved ones want nothing to do with him. You would think he’s reached his low by the time Trees Lounge begins, when he has next to nothing. Yet Buscemi, who additionally wrote and directed the film (this was his filmmaking debut), spends the rest of the film detailing his decline. The movie is not a case of unrelentingly kicking a suffering someone down, and it doesn’t morph into a redemption story, either — it doesn’t take the routes most popularly driven through in many an addiction drama. It instead functions as a canny, veracious-feeling portrait of an addict, as quick to depict the ways in which Tommy is functional as it is to spotlight his lows. I didn’t know, until after finishing Trees Lounge, that Buscemi based the movie on what his life looked like in the days before he became an actor. But I’d already inferred that the film either had to be autobiographical or biographical: the movie has an authentic-seeming fly-on-the-wall ethos that only can come from personal experience or something like it.
Not a lot happens in the film. Most time is spent at Tommy’s favorite bar. It’s a no-frills place on the corner; it looks like the setting of an Edward Hopper painting minus the romantic glow. One bartender knows his habit so well that he bets that Tommy won’t leave the bar after having just one beer. There are a couple of other regulars: a man in his 60s named Bill, who doesn’t speak and is sunken-eyed; and Mike (Mark Boone Junior), a moving-business owner whose marriage and family life are doing figure-8s on a lake of cracking ice. We never learn much about Bill — a narrative decision we realize by the end of the film has been done on purpose. He’s supposed to be a representation of the man Tommy is en route to becoming — an almost tossed-away person only known in bars but, even then, isn’t really known by the people most frequently attending those bars.
Mike is the film’s other major focus, besides Tommy. Mike and the former spend almost all of Trees Lounge trying to salvage their lives. The difference is that we figure Mike, who has begun abusing cocaine, has a decent-enough-but-nonetheless-poor chance of it, given that his wife and daughter still might be willing to return home after leaving him and given that he hasn’t yet lost his business. We still don’t hold out much hope for him; like Tommy, he doesn’t recognize his addictions are what he needs to tend to first. Tommy, on the other hand, is completely unmoored. Toward the last act of the film, he makes a mistake so appalling that any subsequent attempt at recovery is almost predestined to be fruitless. The feature ends, strikingly, with a haunting shot: one of Buscemi staring blankly at a wall in a bar after hearing some terrible news. The stare we see is the kind that suggests that his thoughts have become a soup — a swirl made up of despair and worry but maybe, and hopefully, also an epiphany.
The most compelling element of Trees Lounge is a doomed-from-the-start friendship. It’s between Tommy and Theresa’s 17-year-old niece, Debbie, who’s played by Chloë Sevigny. Tommy and Debbie had had a friendly rapport before the movie began, but after the former’s romance with Theresa ended, they stopped being in each other’s lives. They meet up again in the middle of the film when Tommy’s father, an ice-cream truck driver (played, briefly, by the always-welcome Seymour Cassel), dies of a heart attack at the wheel. When Tommy inherits the business, Debbie begins regularly hopping on for conversation. Debbie is shrewd and a bit disconcertingly frank: in one scene, she asks Tommy a series of questions inquiring where some of his better qualities went. On the hop-alongs, Tommy finds a temporary confidant — a positive development ruined, not long after, when he, Mike, Debbie, and another woman from the bar smoke pot and drink together all night. When Tommy and Debbie are left alone in one of their houses, an off-the-cuff wrestling match results in a fleeting but still-alarming kiss. This is a nadir for Tommy; we know it and so do Debbie and some others when they’ve realized what has happened.
Buscemi doesn’t ask us to sympathize with Tommy. We’re instead made to be fascinated by his all-over-the-place denial — the denials of his addiction, the denials of the ugliness at the crux of many of his decisions. Late-in-the-film flashes of retrospection suggest that Tommy can perhaps change. Because of their dramatic subtlety, they have a curiously poignant pull to them, too. But what’s most evocative about Trees Lounge is that there are no obvious arcs, no excuses for the character, no bouts of for-the-sake-of-misery misery — it has an alive, slice-of-life quality about it that haunts. A