“Gabriel” is a moody, intimate character study filmed and performed in shades of grey. It’s about a mentally ill young man desperate to use his first hours after getting out of an institution to make his life right.
Not that any of that is spelled out for us. But it’s so easily guessed — from Rory Culkin’s performance in the title role, from the way others react to his character — that you wonder why first-time feature director Lou Howe is going to so much trouble to conceal the back story and the plot.
We meet Gabriel on the bus, where he’s guileless enough to not realize that playing and sharing Twizzlers with a small child is going to freak out her mother when she finds out. His cell phone keeps ringing, and when he finally answers it, he lies.
Gabriel is on a mission. He’s hunting for a college girl he knows. But it’s winter break. Alice is nowhere to be found.
And his information on her — a two year-old letter, old family addresses — is dated. He is disarming enough to get help, but there’s something off. Does she know he’s coming?
“It has to be a surprise…I’ve just been…away.”
It’s only when he meets his brother (David Call) at the bus stop that the murk clears, though nobody comes out and says where Gabriel was. His no-nonsense mother (Deirdre O’Connell, quite good) has developed a coping strategy, and that involves Gabriel doing what he says he’s going to do, being where he’s supposed to be and taking his medications.
But he lies as easily as he breathes, he throws up his pills. And every chance he gets, he’s plotting his getaway. Got to find Alice.
“I’m not dangerous,” he pleads. But we wonder. Is he just “the psychotic younger brother”?
Howe, who also scripted this, has built a film that is all observations — the banalities of “normal” life. Gabriel visits the old diner where he had his favorite unhealthy meals, ducks into the apartment of his Nonny (Lynn Cohen of “The Hunger Games”), always skulking, looking for familiar objects even if he’s avoiding people who know his story.
But for all the unease Culkin generates and has often generated in films such as “The Chumscrubber” and “Igby Goes Down,” “Gabriel” never has much urgency. The big revelations aren’t revealing, the dramatic explosions not remotely explosive and there’s always time for another cigarette.
For filmgoers with longer memories, Howe has made an “Ordinary People” where the stakes are too low, the impetus for the plot too mundane and the title character entirely too ordinary.
Cast: Rory Culkin, David Call, Deirdre O’Connell, Lynn Cohen, Emily Meade
Credits: Written and directed by Lou Howe. An Oscilloscope Laboratories release.
Running time: 1:26