Grief is ragged. Grief is feral. It does not pity; it does not rest. It is a bitch. And it is one of three in the striking directorial debut of actress turned filmmaker Amber Tamblyn.
Based on Janet Fitch’s novel, Paint It Black follows two very different women as they grieve the loss of a shared loved one. Alia Shawkat stars as Josie, a modern bohemian who whirls around the art scene of a sunny city, snagging odd jobs as a nude model for art classes or an actress in a grungy experimental film. Her eyes, rimmed in smudged thick black liner, pierce from behind dark bedheaded locks, tipped in a long-ago bleach job. Swaddled in a studded denim jacket, she stomps into punk clubs, and kicks out her battered boots and lean legs draped in tattered fishnets. Amid the thrash of the mosh pit, she finds escape and bliss from the idle stresses of life. But even the punk scene can’t save her from the pain of her lover committing suicide.
After a dance-filled and booze-drenched night out, Josie gets a literal rude awakening when the cops call to report details of a dead 20-something, her Michael (a dreamy but distant Rhys Wakefield). As the cop recounts tattoos and birthmarks, Tamblyn intercuts snatches of Shawkat’s fingers stroking another’s wrist tattoo, her lips kissing a pair of moles just below a man’s left nipple. Then, she cuts to a simple but devastating close-up of Shawkat. Her face, streaked with pain. Her freckles a gorgeous burst of fireworks against her flesh. Her tears, plump and threatening to topple her. Tamblyn trusts in her actress to carry heavy moments in silence and nuance. And Shawkat sells every one. But sparks really fly once Josie collides with Michael’s mother, Meredith (a searing Janet McTeer).
Where Josie is a poor kid scratching her way through the world with art, moxie, and little else in her favor, Meredith is “the world’s greatest pianist,” affluent and celebrated. But her wealth and stature can’t protect her from the pain of losing her only son, her adored Michael. In her suffering, she looks for someone to blame. She chooses Josie and targets her with stalking, harassing phone calls, theft, and threats. And Josie gives back as best she can, wielding her secrets of Michael in his mother’s face to show how close the son and mother no longer were.
Their battle is cold-blooded and at times outrageous, spiked with violence (real and fantasized), showy showdowns, and an appropriately pitch-black wit. I barked in abrupt laughter at several cutting comments these shady ladies exchange like Dynasty slaps to the face. And appropriately church-giggled at Michael’s funeral, where Meredith’s lunging for Josie has her tugging the hall’s runner carpet to literally trip up the grieving girlfriend. It’s absurd. It’s disgraceful. It’s sickly hilarious. But grief robs us of our dignity and leaves us with anger, pain, and a heart too heavy to lift. So naturally, these women begin to bond despite the odds and horrific circumstances. And together, they begin to move on.
Tamblyn shows a true talent for infusing simple scenes with raw emotion, be it by setting a slo-mo mosh pit scene against a delicate piano score, or spooling out Josie’s nightmares in a French New Wave vision of black-and-white and Russian roulette. Still, one of the strongest visuals the film offers is one that mirrors these women, who seem so different, but are sisters in grief. Ahead of a nearly deadly confrontation, we see each put on her face. Her battle gear. Her lipstick. Posh and elegant, Meredith applies hers with precision in the reflection of a large, gold-framed mirror, surrounded in the luxuries of her mansion. Defiant yet sultry, Josie hastily slaps on her lipstick hunched over, looking into a dingy puddle littered with discarded cigarette butts and an abandoned CD. Both women are beautiful, bold, and broken. And it’s not until they see that of each other that they can heal.
Admittedly, once the healing begins, Tamblyn seems to lose her edge a bit. The third act is a bit gooey in sentiment and abrupt in its resolution. Still, Paint It Black is vibrant with emotion, and authentic in its journey, presenting an arc of grief that is raw, riveting, and surreally beautiful.