Mary Kay Place Shines in a Tale of Aging, Making Amends, and Letting Go
DIRECTED BY KENT JONES/2019
We are still early in 2019, but I have a new favorite film of the year. Kent Jones is a famous figure in cinema circles: a writer for Film Comment, the director of the New York Film Festival, and a documentary filmmaker (Hitchcock/Truffaut, A Letter to Elia). With Diane, his first feature film, Jones has made a movie that is bleak, sorrowful, gracious, and deeply spiritual. At only 96 minutes Diane packs meaning into every minute, even though most of its scenes seem, superficially, entirely ordinary.
Mary Kay Place is Diane Rhodes, a woman who lives her life in service of others. She moves from visits to her dying cousin, to running errands for elderly relatives and neighbors, to serving meals in her church’s soup kitchen, and always, inevitably, to trying to help her drug addicted son. She slips into his apartment with clean laundry, home cooked food, and pleas that he return to rehab. But Brian (Jake Lacy) responds only with petulance and vulgarities.
Diane seems like such a fundamentally kind and selfless woman, and early in the film I thought of a woman in my own church who seems to live much like Diane – her days filled caring for dying loved ones, providing shelter for wayward kin, serving the poor, tending to elderly neighbors. But there’s more than just a good heart behind Diane’s service. She’s doing penance, something that’s hinted at once or twice, then addressed directly by Tom, a man who has been coming for those soup kitchen meals for years. In one of the film’s tenderest scenes he gently assesses Diane’s condition; that she is “wrapped in shame”, paying for sins. He extends a kind of absolution to Diane, but she’s not ready to receive it. Not by a long shot.
As the years of Diane’s life pass (sometimes with startling abruptness), the mystery of her shame – of what she calls “my one terrible sin” – begins to reveal itself. Meanwhile, loved ones are snatched away by death and Brian comes clean only to replace his old addiction with a particularly toxic form of Evangelicalism.
Diane is set in rural Massachusetts, and much of the film seems to take place in winter. It’s a largely cold and quiet world, but there is so much grief, resentment, and guilt below the surface that it can’t help but erupt occasionally. We are conditioned to reduce older women to what we can see on the surface but in a scene that is the film’s aching heart, Diane drinks too much in a bar and dances stiffly to Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”. It hints at the freedom Diane once experienced, of times when she was not buried under the weight of regret and other people’s needs.
It is impossible to reduce Diane down to a movie about one thing. Certainly is about shame and regret. It’s also a movie about the stripping away that comes with aging. The theme of being alone comes up over and over again. Brian, drug addled, wails “I’m alone!” even as his mother assures him that he is not, that she will not abandon him. But Diane suggests that whatever loving intentions we might have, we all die alone. Facing this is the last and perhaps hardest task we face in life.
Food is also a powerful image in this film, and not only in the soup kitchen meals served to the poor and homeless. Diane is shown cooking for and sharing food with others over and over. In a film that addresses spirituality so directly it’s impossible not to think of the central figure of Diane’s faith, the one who made sharing a meal the sacrament representing his own self-sacrificial love.
Mary Kay Place is wondrous as Diane. She rarely smiles and her features seem to almost literally carry the weight of the world. And yet we understand why she is still loved by her family and friends: not simply for her selflessness and generosity, but for her wit and and steely New England stoicism. Jones cast other fine actresses in Diane. Her best friend, Bobbie, is played by Andrea Martin. Family scenes offer the pleasure of seeing Estelle Parsons, Dierdre O’Connell, Glynnis O’Connor, and Joyce Van Patten.
Diane is an indisputably sad film, but not a hopeless one. That bright winter sky above Diane’s head seems to be spirit-filled whether she can always sense it or not. And when Tom tells Diane that the food she has served him over the years always left him feeling “sanctified”, his presence seemed more than merely human. Diane lives in penance, constantly offering sacrifices for her sin. Her inability to feel forgiven doesn’t mean that forgiveness wasn’t there all along.