It is surprising to consider that in recent years we have seen several examples of elderly men (think Clint Eastwood and Michael Caine) shrugging off age and infirmity to face off against those who would prey on the weak. The advanced age of their characters (and the relative ages of the actors in question) recall, to some extent, the battles of Charles Bronson in the Death Wish franchise. There is definitely a certain demographic within the movie-viewing set that desires to see these kinds of against-the-odds thrillers, especially as, generationally speaking, we find ourselves living longer while maintaining a degree of vim and vigor.
But, the reality is that fewer seniors are standing up and going toe-to-toe with antagonists that are less than half (or more likely a third) their age. Time is the ultimate nemesis and its minions now include a legion of regulations and legislative restrictions being placed on what seem like basic civil and/or human rights.
Time, in the form of debilitating physical and mental infirmity, tested the couples in Michael Haneke’s Academy Award-winning drama Amour and Sarah Polley’s Away from Her. We watched as husbands (respectively) tried to steadfastly hold onto control over their relationships with their wives and their own sense of autonomy, only to succumb to the devastating ravages of the inevitable.
In Still Mine, writer-director Michael McGowan presents us with Craig Morrison (James Cromwell), an 80-something farmer, a tireless and practical man with a large family and an even larger kingdom, which he manages with common sense and hard-earned experience.
Morrison is one of the last holdouts from the rugged rural roots era of the American Dream. He learned his trade and craft — not only farming but also woodworking, foundation-laying and building — from his father and has passed much on to his children and their children. He is also a stubborn and proud man; character traits he has also passed down his line.
Morrison finds himself facing increasing signs that his wife Irene (the always lovely Geneviève Bujold) suffers from early stage dementia, but the pair has never cottoned to the notion of being herded into a senior facility toward the final shuffle. So Morrison, after scaling back activities on his farm, decides to build a single-level home on part of their land with a beautiful view that will allow him to manage things with Irene more easily.
Resisting the pleas of his children to either hire a contractor to handle the job or accept their aid with the more physically demanding aspects of the work, Morrison takes the idea in his head and meticulously endeavors to bring it to life. What he doesn’t account for is the bureaucratic regulations of the modern building process, which forces him to apply for permits to build on his own land and requires a series of inspections to ensure that at every step along the way the work meets code requirements.
Still Mine pits Morrison in a race of sorts, against a system that he simply has no need for. By his estimation, he knows more about safe building practices than anyone in the county office (he most certainly does) and he’s more than willing to tell anyone in earshot. But he’s also trying to beat the clock with Irene, whose gradual decline starts to pick up steam while Morrison stumbles through the obstacles concerning the rules and regulations.
Watching Cromwell pace himself through the story is a thing of quiet, studied beauty. He plays Morrison, scene-by-scene, completely grounded in the exchanges of the moment, but never allowing us to forget the big picture. What could have been manipulative and cloying instead has a sad urgency, and unlike Amour and Away from Her, because of the rural setting, there is no straining for artful posturing. This is simple, straightforward and true from start to finish.
Steeped in both the melancholy beauty of those recent touchstones on the subject of aging and the anger of the elderly men under attack that I mentioned at the start, McGowan intuitively harvests what works from these sources and, with Cromwell, fashions a cunning ode to the passing of a generation. The sly message —made more relevant since Still Mine is based on a true story — is a reminder that men like Morrison continue to walk the earth and there’s still much we can glean from them before they leave us behind. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) (PG-13) Grade: B+
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