When Josie (Alia Shawkat), bleary eyed after another night in L.A.’s punk clubs, wakes up to a phone call early in Paint it Black, she doesn’t expect good news. But nothing can prepare her for the awfulness of the news she receives. Asked by the San Bernardino police if she knows of anyone who might have checked into a hotel room under the name “Oscar Wilde” she hesitates. When the the officer starts naming off identifying marks — a tattoo, some birthmarks — her mind flashes to the past, and the intimate moments she shared with Michael (Rhys Wakefield), a man who loved Oscar Wilde and who had that tattoo and those birthmarks and who’s just killed himself in a San Bernardino hotel.
Josie has a hard time coming back from that, and from there Paint it Black follows close behind her as she descends into a world all her own — or almost all her own. Her friends try to comfort her, but she can’t process their banal thoughts on coming to terms with death. She returns to the clubs, but the film drowns out the soundtrack in favor of mournful piano music that doubles as a siren song only Josie can hear, drawing her to Michael’s mother Meredith (Janet McTeer), a famous pianist who blames Josie for Michael’s death.
Or does she? Much of the film concerns a strange push and pull between Josie and Meredith. Meredith openly attacks Josie at Michael’s funeral and even threatens to have her killed, but she also exerts a strange allure. In time she takes her in and they mourn together. Then their relationship turns, then turns again. Whatever their feelings for each other, their love for Michael unites them — but whether that union will help them survive their loss or destroy each other remains the film’s central mystery.
Adapted from a novel by White Oleander author Janet Fitch, Paint it Black is the directorial debut of Amber Tamblyn, who originally planned to star in the film herself and let someone else direct. That might have worked. Tamblyn’s a fine actress who certainly could have played Josie well. But she’s found an ideal lead in Shawkat, who gets to exercise dramatic chops here we don’t always get to see in the best performance she’s ever given. But, even more fortuitously, the change in plans reveals Tamblyn as a first-time filmmaker who arrives with the skills of a veteran.
This is tricky material to adapt and it would be easy to let the L.A. gothic trappings do much of the work. Tamblyn develops the atmosphere well. Meredith presides over a crumbling, cluttered estate, accompanied only by a silent maid (Nancy Kwan). She drinks a lot, and though she’s much more put together than Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, their characters would probably have a lot to chat about over tea.
The setting matches the characters’ frames of mind, but while this might easily have been a mood piece, Tamblyn gives it shape and rhythm to match the central relationship, mournful one moment, verging into horror movie territory the next. McTeer — whose stunning performance is both terrifying and pitiable — towers over Shawkat as Meredith, but Shawkat plays Josie as someone who cannot back down from a fight, even if she’s just as capable of being seduced into submission in other ways. Tamblyn captures both their antipathy and the way their shared loss leads them to kind of fade into one another. When Josie zones out and loses touch with reality late in Paint it Black, the film zones out a bit with her, letting the emotions of the moment take precedence over the narrative. If in moments it’s not always clear what’s going on, it’s perfectly clear what’s being felt. In graceful montages, the past surfaces and disappears, becoming more real than the present and then disappearing again.
It’s a ghost story without a ghost and a horror movie with a monster as sympathetic as she is terrifying. But, above all, it’s as remarkable a depiction of how grief can subsume us and bend reality to its needs as you’ll ever see, directed by a talent with a bright future behind the camera.
Paint it Black opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, May 19th.