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D: Robert Altman / 188m

Cast: Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr, Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Michael Beach, Charles Rocket

When the pre-teen son of television commentator Howard Finnigan (Davison) and his wife Anne (MacDowell) is knocked down by a car driven by waitress Doreen Pigott (Tomlin), he refuses to let her drive him home afterwards. Later, he falls unconscious and is taken to hospital. It’s the day before his eighth birthday. Doreen is harassed at the diner where she works by Stuart (Ward), an out-of-work salesman, and his buddies Gordon (Henry) and Vern (Lewis) before they head off on a fishing trip. Gene Shepard (Robbins), a cop whose wife, Sherri (Stowe), doesn’t know he’s having an affair, abandons the family dog because of its excessive barking. Ralph Wyman (Modine), a doctor, and his wife, Marian (Moore), are a couple in crisis who stay together out of convenience instead of love, while the Finnigans’ next door neighbours have a pool cleaner, Jerry Kaiser (Penn), whose wife, Lois (Leigh), works as a phone sex operator…

These are just some of the stories that intertwine and intermingle with each other in Robert Altman’s majestic adaptation of nine short stories and one poem written by Raymond Carver. Possibly the finest ensemble piece ever made, Short Cuts examines the lives of twenty-two separate characters, and does so with a precision and an understanding of the underlying desperation that each of them is feeling; it’s like watching a group therapy session where everyone is jockeying for the most attention. Altman achieves the impossible here: he makes every one of those twenty-two characters appear credible and relatable, and he does so by stripping away the masks they hide behind in order to reveal the fallible, scrabbling egos that fuel their shallow pretensions and selfish conceits. It’s holding up a mirror to society time, an indelible foray into the casual brutality of everyday lives, with verbal, physical, and emotional attacks being meted out, seemingly at every opportunity, in order for these characters to feel superior to the people closest to them: the people they purport to love. At times it’s terrifying to see the depths of despair that some characters are experiencing, while others go about their lives blithely and with an equally terrifying lack of self-awareness. How do these people survive from day to day?

The answer is: any way they can, and Altman, along with co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt, artfully highlights the ways that they achieve this, whether it’s through forbearance, a reliance on alcohol, or by simply ignoring what’s happening around them. All this – and at over three hours – could seem like spending time with a group of people you’d happily cross the street to avoid, but the movie has such a bone dry, and darkly scabrous sense of humour that you can’t help but find amusement in even the most horrendous moments (and sometimes to laugh is just about the best and only option the viewer has). With Los Angeles providing the perfect backdrop for all this psychic turmoil, and pitch perfect performances from all concerned, the movie is evenly structured among the characters for maximum effect, and Geraldine Peroni’s editing ensures the action occurs with fluidity and a pace to match. Aside from The Player (1992), Altman has never been this good, his direction proving incisive and perceptive in equal measure, and his mastery of the various storylines is an object lesson in how to make each disparate element of a movie as important as all the rest. It’s an impressive achievement, one that rewards the audience at every turn, and better still, with each repeat viewing.

Rating: 9/10 – a bold, multi-layered odyssey through the hellish environs of middle-class America, Short Cuts is abrasive, awash with attitude, fiendishly funny, and starkly revealing of the deceptions that ordinary people employ to give their lives meaning; a one-of-a-kind movie that goes to some very dark places indeed, it still has a degree of hope running throughout the various storylines – even if it is chafed and frayed to snapping point.

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