Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Rory Culkin, Matthew Broderick
Watch You Can Count on Me online in the UK: Netflix UK / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
For such a relatively modest film, in terms of scope, a revisit nearly 17 years on from its 2000 release finds You Can Count on Me a surprisingly fertile foundation point for many careers to come. For starters, there’s newly-appointed Oscar-winner Kenneth Lonergan, who made his directing debut with the film. He also co-wrote the film (as he did with follow-ups Margaret and Manchester by the Sea) and, while not his first screenwriting credit (he had Analyze This, an episode of Doug and the same year’s The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle to his name), this is very much a fully-formed introduction to the Lonergan mode of film-making: dramas driven by the lingering wounds of past or recent traumas concerning death, which balance a tragicomic sensibility that many filmmakers struggle to pull off, yet alone do so three times.
Mark Ruffalo’s co-lead turn here also kick-started his career more than any other prior project. And it’s a quintessential Ruffalo performance, full of mannerisms recognisable from films that would follow (minus turning into a giant green rage monster, obviously). As the struggling, estranged younger brother of Laura Linney’s Sammy, he vividly gets across a lifetime of regrets, pity and perceived insignificance with the smallest of gestures. His performance is characteristic of Lonergan’s skill, too, in thriving on the emotional truth found in the tiniest of moments, whether in scenes heavy on dialogue or reliant on Terry just struggling to exist back in his old, small hometown.
Speaking of Linney, although You Can Count on Me was hardly her film debut, this was her major break in terms of leading roles and, like Ruffalo, it’s a perfect encapsulation of her various appeals as a performer. This earned Linney her first of many Oscar nominations (the film’s sole nod in the acting categories), and it may still be her richest role to date, offering a wealth of emotional tides and moral struggles to deal with.
Finally, and perhaps most overlooked when it comes to this film’s legacy, is the performance of Rory Culkin as Sammy’s eight-year-old son, Rudy. Aside from two brief appearances in older brother Macaulay’s The Good Son and Richie Rich, You Can Count on Me served as Culkin’s debut, which led to prominent parts in the likes of Signs, Mean Creek, Scream 4 and Electrick Children. With Rudy, Lonergan showcases his deftness with characterisations of believable young characters, much as he demonstrated with Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea and Anna Paquin in Margaret. Culkin is free of precociousness, and demonstrates a similarly open quality to his older co-stars.
That characteristic is key to what makes You Can Count on Me so effective: Lonergan’s people never seem programmed. Even when their actions lead to perhaps predictable consequences, there is always a sense of genuine spontaneity in how they respond and react to things. These are real, messy humans in flow, unable to handle their worries and obligations in ways that make sense even to them.
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