You Can Count On Me (2000)
Written & Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
A brief few moments of tragedy can ripple through people’s lives seemingly forever. This is what has happened to a pair of adult siblings from upstate New York who have drifted apart over the year. Now they find it nearly impossible to reconnect, and their personal lives are a series of missteps and errors. Starting out as a playwright, Kenneth Lonergan came to films after a few successful stage productions. His directorial debut is a melancholy picture, a slice of life that doesn’t deliver the denouement we might expect but just presents a moment from these characters’ lives where they make some decisions, and we see how they live with the consequences.
One fateful night, Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) Prescott’s parents are killed in a car accident. Years later, Sammy still lives in Scottsville, New York, working as a lending officer at a local bank. She has also has a son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), with a deadbeat no longer in their life. Terry has drifted around the country, spending time in jail and currently in a toxic relationship with a woman. He is desperate for money and heads home under the pretense of a reunion with Sammy. This comes when his sister gets a new bank manager, Brian (Matthew Broderick), who has a little interest in her childcare situation. During Terry’s stay, the siblings attempt to get along but ultimately start uncovering the cracks and pain from all those years past while trying to figure out what they are to each other as they’ve become new people.
One of the best elements of You Can Count On Me is the organic nature of the characters. There’s no formula to the story, which could be frustrating to a viewer seeking out a clearly structured plot. This is very much a characters-first approach to writing, which results in a deeply engrossing film. For such a movie to work, you need great actors, and I think Mark Ruffalo has rarely been better. I have some opinions about Laura Linney’s work in other films; I believe one of the hosts of the podcast Filmspotting referred to her as “an age-appropriate dialogue delivery device.” Working under director Lonergan and with Ruffalo, she gives a performance I actually enjoyed.
Lonergan isn’t interested in judging his characters are giving them closure but putting them in situations and watching how they react. Sammy is given a new boss who is seemingly resentful of getting a position in a small town in the Catskills but also demands a level of professionalism that cuts through the humanity of his workers. Sammy is trying to be an orderly professional, but she’s also human. It would have been easy to write her as the stuck up/by the book sibling; however, Sammy just has things a little more together than Terry. She makes some pretty significant mistakes at her job, and the film doesn’t really wrap things up neatly. She doesn’t lose her job, but it’s clear that the bank’s environment is going to be different going forward.
Terry doesn’t learn to be a better person, but he does bond with his estranged nephew Rudy. He is never a fatherly figure but tries to share his personal philosophy with the boy, which often goes wrong. Terry takes Rudy out to hustle pool at a bar one night when he’s supposed to be babysitting. He tears up the floors of the family house when he discovers a leak. This leads to sulking when Sammy hires a professional and Terry forgets to pick up his nephew, leaving him to have to walk to the bank in the rain. The siblings’ relationship is never healed; they part ways, unsure if they will ever see each other. Of course, Terry offers platitudes that he’ll be back, but we have to wonder if the man will ever set foot in Scottsville after this visit.
You Can Count On Me is a very intelligent, well-written film that marks a talented director & screenwriter’s debut. It perfectly fits the dearth of well-made independent pictures that would run on IFC and the Sundance Channel in the early 2000s. It’s clear Lonergan is an astute observer of people and gives these characters voices that endear them to us and make us frustrated with them. It’s a great drama that should be revisited by people looking for mature cinema.