Although completed in 2008, it wasn’t until after Sundance 2010 and a tour on the festival circuit that Jake Scott’s WELCOME TO THE RILEYS found a distribution home and will now be welcomed into theatres around the country.
A little gem of a film that’s faceted on many levels but still with a few rough edges, WELCOME TO THE RILEYS is an emotionally complex character study of a family in crisis, with an interesting introspective story, visually stimulating look and performances that are at times, off the charts excellent.
Lois and Doug look like your average upper middle class, Midwestern couple. Lois is slender, immaculately groomed and coifed and wears her June Cleaver pearls everyday while puttering around the family home. Her hairdresser even comes to the house. Furnishings in the home reflect a woman of quality and taste. She appears to want for nothing, yet always looks sad and terse. Doug, on the other hand, looks like your average blue collar Joe. A bit portly, khaki Dockers and plaid cotton button down shirts with pens and other assorted items in the shirt pocket are his daily dress. A sport coat gets tossed on for those really important days.
Starting out in life as a plumber, he now owns a chain of plumbing stores, but has retained his work ethic, routine and simple style. He hides in his workroom in the garage when he wants a cigarette and one night a week he gets together with the boys for a friendly game of poker. After poker, for at least the past four years, he goes to the local waffle house. He sits in the same booth, is waited on by the same waitress - Vivian, tells the same stories, orders the same food, and then goes home with Vivian. A kindly nice woman, she has been Joe’s mistress for some time, filling a cavernous emotional void that exists between Doug and Lois.
Eight years ago, Doug and Lois lost their teenaged daughter in a car accident. Ever since, Lois has been crippled with agoraphobia, shutting herself away in the house, never even stepping out the door. Doug, himself suffering the emotional scars of his daughter’s death, has forced himself to go on, to roll up his sleeves and move on, try and fix his broken heart and to live life (thus his mistress), but he has been further damaged by Lois’ self-imposed hibernation and indifference to him.
Heading off to New Orleans for a plumbing convention, Doug has every intention of bringing Vivian with him but is then is dealt another emotional blow. Showing up at the waffle house for his usual night of food and frolic, and to bring Vivian an early birthday present she can use on the trip, he learns that Vivian is dead. Lost and alone, Doug begs Lois to join him, but to no avail. So he does what he always does. He puts one foot in front of the other and although going through the motions, is more emotionally lost than ever; that is until he gets to the Big Easy and meets Mallory.
A young runaway now working as a stripper and hooker, Mallory has had no easy life. She is as fragile and broken as Doug, something with which he quickly connects; not to mention the fact she strongly resembles his deceased daughter. Seeing Mallory as something he can “fix”, rather than do what most guys would do in his situation, he embraces her with a fatherly love, taking her under his wing, healing himself and hopefully her, as well. But the relationship also sparks some rash decisions by Doug that have a domino effect, not the least of which is spurring Lois to try to save both her marriage and herself. What develops is nothing short of miraculous.
I can think of no one who can bring the emotional and physical gravitas to the role of Doug but for James Gandolfini. He has a strength and power, balanced with a teddy bearish comfort and vulnerability that is embraceable. He makes you feel for Doug; feel his pain, his losses - losses that just keep on coming. You ache with him. On the flip side, he also draws you into Doug’s joyous moments. You smile with him.
Gandolfini brings a sense of pride and dignity to Doug that is almost touchable it’s so real. And his relationship with Kristen Stewart is brilliant. Seeing them on screen together, you find yourself believing this burly teddy bear of a man would be a great father - strict, but loving and kind. Surprisingly, where Gandolfini does falter is with his Indiana accent, which is intermittent at best.
If you have seen “The Yellow Handkerchief”, you have seen Kristen Stewart at her best - multi-faceted and textured, with emotional nuances one would never suspect she possessed had you only seen her in the “Twilight” movies. WELCOME TO THE RILEYS was lensed after filming of “Twilight” but before Stewart became a “star” and before “The Yellow Handkerchief.” It is evident that as Mallory, Stewart’s talents grow, serving as a stepping stone to her future work. You can see the transition and maturity of her performance from “Twilight” to “Handkerchief” through this performance as Mallory. With a defiant childlike innocence, like Gandolfini, Stewart also brings this vulnerability and emotional confusion to the part that not only serves as an interactive character catalyst but strengthens her bond with Gandolfini’s Doug. Watching Stewart, you feel her sense of fear - fear of life, fear of her past, fear of her future - all of which draws you deeper into the character. At the end of the day, you actually see that Stewart can act and steps it up when playing against superlative seasoned performers.
Melissa Leo gives one of her most textured and evocative performances as Lois. With a quiet awkward, uncomfortableness, midway in the film Lois blossoms with the exuberance of youth, like a kid in a candy store or ripping open presents on Christmas morning. Leo radiates joy and lightness and then slowly settles into a confident persona that you believe is how she would be had life not dealt her a bad deck of cards. Leo’s is perhaps the most fascinating and transformative performance of the group.
Written by Ken Hixon, WELCOME TO THE RILEYS is intriguing to watch unfold. Although cliched to an extent and often uneven and at times, unsettling in the pacing and story, the relationships and interpretations of the human condition are propelled by compelling performances that overcome the film’s pitfalls. With the relationship between Doug and Mallory at the heart of the film, the scenes between Gandolfini and Stewart are so powerful, it is impossible to turn away. You want to see what develops, how each impacts the other.
Enjoyable is Hixon’s insertion of cute comedic elements that are fed by the traits of Doug’s character. It’s easy to see any father of his generation toying with his daughter over use of foul language or playing “dumb” with words or situations, pushing her to think and come out of her own closed shell. Very endearing.
Fueling all of this is the direction by Jake Scott. Obviously calling on genetics for his visual eye (he is the son of Ridley Scott), Scott, along with cinematographer Christopher Soos, exhibit two very distinct looks, styles and energies; the first, the Riley home in Indiana - very cool, soft and soothing; the second, New Orleans and the world of Mallory which is post-Katrina, gritty, dark and nighttime neon. Lensing style in New Orleans also has a terse, hard, choppy look similar to many of Scott’s earlier music video works, while Indiana is shot with more fluid camera movements, particularly when concentrating on Lois. The camera truly celebrates Lois’ transformation throughout the film with almost and ethereal glow.
Surprising is Marc Streitenfeld’s score which is the complete antithesis of what we expect in a New Orleans set film. While staying true to the musicality of the region and its history, Streitenfeld brings a calming quiet to the score that is as uplifting and impactful as the performances of Gandolfini, Stewart and Leo.
With a subtle emotional build, intricately nuanced and believable performances that are deeply affective, touching the heart, WELCOME TO THE RILEYS rolls out the welcome mat to each of us.
Source / via: WTTR Saturday