John Magary's cutting almost-a-comedy The Mend is less a movie than a houseguest that knocks about in your head longer than you expect it to, grubby and demanding, leaving its whiskers on your bars of soap. It's a tough film to shake, a slice-of-life that slices, knifelike. It's a funny drama of brothers that first makes you hate its prickly leads but then, after steeping you in their bottomed-out day-to-day, might inspire you to hope for them — but don't expect one of those happyish indie endings where a troubled character flashes us a smile to let us know that he or she is kind of maybe starting to get it together. The best you can expect of these fellows — Josh Lucas' abrasive ne'er-do-well Mat especially — is that they'll stop laughing at the very idea of kind of maybe starting to etc. etc.
We first meet everyone in an extended, involving party sequence, which establishes almost immediately writer-director Magary's command of what time actually feels like as it slips past — and of the way each moment, among touchy drunk and stoned 20-somethings, can snag against ugliness. Alan (Stephen Plunkett), the brother with a job and a place to live, gets called out by broke-ass alpha Mat for attempting to pass off insights cribbed from a James Wolcott review as his own. That embarrassment bears ugly fruit when Alan's live-in girlfriend, Farrah (Mickey Sumner), confesses out loud, at length, to everyone assembled that she can't watch a movie without dreading the moment when Alan will opine about it afterward. She suffers under the tyranny of his hot takes.
All this is much more lively on screen than it probably sounds. Magary jabs at the audience, and you never can tell when the next hit or gag will land. The party takes up more than 20 minutes of screen time, a sprawl of moods, characters and themes, yet it's all tightly constructed and edited, a precise distillation of just how an evening like this might grind on.
In the morning, Alan and Farrah, having made up, rush to LaGuardia to start a vacation — and Mat, apparently in between homes, sets himself up in their apartment for two weeks. The first scenes of this sting with observational acuteness: Here's a drifter who's ferocious around other people, speaking what he thinks are caustic truths, but as soon as he's alone he's lying on the couch, his laptop on his stomach and a cereal bowl on his chest, watching videos on his phone. Since Magary is a planner, and since his story of shambolic men is not itself shambolic, we know it will pay off later when Mat knocks a bottle to the floor, shattering it and then not bothering to clean it up.
Soon Mat is joined by his own girlfriend, Andrea (Lucy Owen), and her son. And then they're joined by Alan, back early after the trip has soured, annoyed yet secretly relieved to have so many people around. The next 50 minutes of movie, in which the brothers fight, don't quite make up and occasionally get wonderfully drunk, are cutting and messy and a little bloody — everything that happens is as inevitable as someone stepping on those shards of glass. Judd Greenstein and Michi Wiancko's jittery score, all tense strings, suggests at all moments that any minor peace might unravel into violence.
Lucas has never been better in a film. Plunkett is also strong as the brother who at first seems more nice, more at home in the grown-up world. He's even stronger as we discover that Alan's put-upon niceness masks a mean streak as deep as Mat's. The actors don't really look like brothers, but in nervy yet superbly controlled performances they reveal that all pricks, deep down, resemble one another.
THE MEND | Written and directed by John Magary | Cinelicious Pictures | Sundance Sunset