The Squid and The Whale - Criterion Review
It has been over ten years since Noah Baumbach first released his fourth feature The Squid and The Whale to mass critical praise and a host of awards, so it seemed only right that Criterion, the purveyors of quality films on high-quality home releases, should put out a Blu-Ray version of what many before me have argued is one of the most poignant, personal, and strangely universal examinations of the human condition that this reviewer has seen in a long time.
The story follows a dysfunctional family living in Brooklyn in the 1980s. After an argument that appears to be the final straw two writers Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) tell their children, teenager Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and pre-teen Frank (Owen Kline), that they are separating. What follows is an uncomfortable arrangement where the children are shuttled between their parents and eventually take sides in the passive aggressive war that their mother and father wage with each other, at the same time trying to figure out who they are in a world dominated by their intellectual parents.
As Richard Booth in his review of the DVD release ten years earlier surmises, unlike other films that share a similar premise there is no focus on the miasma of the decade or the comic eccentricities of the characters, rather The Squid and The Whale is a deeper examination of a family slowly coming apart at the seams. Baumbach blends a variety of genres and film techniques to create something that feels entirely real. There is comedy, there is drama, but overall I think there is a focus on the everyday and mundane that feels refreshing in an industry that would normally have shoved overwrought speeches about the meaning of love, family and identity every 5 minutes.
There is a subtlety to the drama and humour that is perhaps the main draw of the film, and it is this subtlety that is a testament to the skills of the actors, even young Owen Klien (who at the time of shooting was only 14 years old). Of the cast, the standouts are definitely Jeff Daniels as Bernard and Jesse Eisenberg as Walt; both these actors have perhaps been wrongfully dismissed previously as purely comedy performers. However, The Squid and the Whale proves that there is a deeper more natural talent that they are unfortunately unable to exercise as often as perhaps they would want to. Eisenberg's Walt is insecure, narcissistic, and anxious to please. Walt has aspirations of being an intellectual, but he never reads any of the books, watches any of the films or listens to any of the music that he claims to. There is a scene where he is almost caught out by his girlfriend that is unbearable to watch for anyone who has tried to set themselves up as an armchair academic. Another critical moment for Walt is when he tries to pass off Pink Floyd's Hey You as his own song at a school's talent show, and he is eventually found out. The fact that Eisenberg can play what could have been an unapologetic, spoiled, contemptable child sympathetically is one of the reasons why he needs to work more. Walt, in idolising his dad, treats everyone else with contempt; he breaks up with his girlfriend for a petty reason and his treatment of his mother during the divorce is unforgivable, though with a father like Daniel’s Bernard who can blame the poor boy. Bernard is selfish, demanding, and he thinks far too highly of himself; his treatment of his family is a testament to that. Bernard’s advice to Walt is perhaps the most damaging, encouraging the boy to break up with his girlfriend Sophie to play the field like he had wished he had done. Finally, Bernard’s constant assertion that his opinion is the most important contributes to his arrogance, and this makes his fall so much sweeter, though again this performance is played with nuance and subtlety that makes us feel sympathy for a despicable human being. This is the subtlest strength that the film has; each character is not wholly good or wholly bad, they are people; human, flawed and damaged but with the capacity for compassion and growth. While relatively there isn't as much for Linney to do as her co-stars, she provides an excellent base as the embittered ex-wife and loving but exasperated mother. She provides a strength and tenderness that makes her performance entirely believable and completely necessary to the proceedings.
The understated drama played in brief glances and barely contained tears is coupled perfectly with the almost documentary style of handheld shooting by Director of Photography, Robert D Yeoman. While the technique of handheld camera can feel done to death, with poorly made action films using it as a means to hide sub-par choreography, in Squid the slight wobbles and shakes as the camera moves hint at the barely controlled emotion bubbling below the more refrained interaction, and when the characters express their anger and frustration the judders contribute to the emotional intensity of the scene in a palpable way. The soundtrack, which was composed and arranged Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, remains unobtrusive it subconsciously hints towards the feelings that the characters can never express completely.
Restored in a 4k digital transfer the film is displayed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The menus of the disk are intuitive and clearly labelled, with handy descriptions to tell you what there is on the disk.
While this is not a high-budget, high-octane blockbuster, the visual and audio upgrade is much appreciated, and while watching there were no obvious problems with the transfer, which due to it being produced by Criterion is a good quality one. Though this update is perhaps not as necessary to enjoy a film like The Squid and The Whale, due to its more toned down and realist aesthetic, the crispness of the image definitely enhances the reality that Baumbach has created. Perhaps more important to the film is the audio which was clear and I had no difficulty in understanding the dialogue no matter how loud or quiet it got.
All of the extras that are contained on the disk go some way to enhance the viewing of the film, whether it be relating experiences while on set, the process of making the film or Baumbach's own interpretation of his story, each one provides a fascinating insight into the movie and a great reason to pick up this edition.