MOVIE REVIEW: Our Souls at Night




Even from a different generation than the present day, you can’t get more Hollywood than Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.  Both are emeritus stars of Tinseltown royalty on multiple levels, respected and celebrated as award-winning performers, icons of style, sex symbols, and vigilant political personas off-screen.  To see the two of them together again, for the fifth time and the first time in 38 years in Our Souls at Night, is a revitalizing treat unto itself, but to see their shared film be staunchly non-Hollywood in stature, available right out of the gate on Netflix, is even more refreshing.

Based on the late Kent Haruf’s final novel of the same name, The Sense of an Ending director Ritesh Batra’s film allows Redford and Fonda to glide through a touching romantic drama and prove that their on-screen chemistry never diluted a single molecule.  Set in the homely fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, the Robert and Jane play two people touched by death.  Each respectively are surviving spouses living alone in their later years.  He is Louis Waters, a retired school teacher and widower holding down his seat among the sewing circle of fellow old men adorned in buttoned-up flannel at the local coffee shop led by Bruce Dern’s big talker.  She is the widowed Addie Moore, his long-time neighbor of forty-plus years across the street.

One night, Addie walks over and knocks on Louis’ door with a platonic proposition.  She gives Louis the standing invitation to come over to her place and sleep with her, not for sex, but to fill a void of presence from not having someone on the other side of the bed.  She thinks of him as a good man and someone who very likely misses the same thing.  Taken aback initially with equal parts curiosity and flattery, Louis agrees to give it a go, carrying his brown grocery bag of pajamas and toiletries to her back porch door a few nights a week.  

The wine girl and the beer man take it slow to seek common understandings.  Weak small talk about the arbitrary topics like the weather evolves into deeper questioning and connective bonding.  Night after night, their chaste pillow talk compares their lives, loves, losses, flaws, and unfulfilled dreams.  When family drama, in the form of Addie’s struggling son Gene (the extremely capable Matthias Schoenaerts, going toe-to-toe with greats) and his seven-year-old son Jamie (Young Sheldon’s Iain Armitage), interrupts their shared kinship, challenges arise for the blossoming couple.

From beginning to end, Our Souls at Night flows like a gentle mountain stream of contemplative conversations, crafted from well-designed scenes penned by the duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the successful screen adaptation scribes behind (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault of Our Stars.  They provide smart, winning material for the screen legends to delve into and make their own.  In different hands, both on paper and in front of the camera, Haruf’s novel could have become inflated into excessive and lackluster soap opera theatrics, somewhere near the cliches of repetitive and predictable Nicholas Sparks film treatments.  

Instead, Fonda and Redford put their candor and comeliness to perfectly measured uses for Batra in his third feature film.  His assured smirk underneath his soulful eyes and color-faded tresses and her forthright confidence flowing from wavy silver bangs twinkle with nuance rather than overpower with unfiltered shine.  They simply glow without obvious glamour.  They speak and connect with honest, raw emotion, paced by the genteel plucked-string musical cues composed by the long-lost Michael Mann collaborator and Oscar winner Elliot Goldenthal in the softest score of his career.  There’s a special simplicity to what Robert and Jane do that doesn’t require fluff, pomp, or melodrama.  They hit a sweet spot of affection that attracts our respectful fondness in return.

LESSON #1: DON’T WORRY ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE THINK-- Even if they don’t call it dating, public scrutiny will judge Louis and Addie as if they were.  Even if it’s not sleeping around, other people will think it and spin their own rumors.  Take their high road.  Let people talk.  Don’t be ashamed of seeking and keeping a good partner that enlivens your life, romantically or non-romantically.  

LESSON #2: FATHER-FIGURES ARE AS ATTRACTIVE AS FATHERS-- Have you ever observed moments or social media posts where women find devoted men, fathers or not, doting on a child to be incredibly desirable with audible or typed “awwws”?  Well, it works.  When men can show their maturity, stability, and love to children, women notice and see the kind of heart they want in their own lives.  Smooth move, Redford, smooth move.

LESSON #3: THE COMFORT OF COMPANIONSHIP-- Nighttime can be lonely.  The unknown darkness, stillness, and disquieting fatigue can bring out the anxious thoughts of mortality.  Someone sleeping next to you in those moments of fragility can bring senses of relaxation, ease, and safety.  When one of our characters shares the wish of “I just want to live out my day and tell you about it at night,” the unity rings true.  Merely being there for someone is a bigger bond than sex in that hour of the day.  That kind of togetherness lasts longer than physical passion.  If that grows into love, that's even better.