Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin
Running Time: 81 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
“Mom and me versus you and Dad.” This opening line, and the tennis sequence to which it belongs, perfectly sets the scene for Noah Baumbach’s 2005 semi-autobiographical divorce drama The Squid and the Whale.
The film was something of an indie darling on release, launching Baumbach and Eisenberg into the public eye. Its Criterion release over here, along with other indie greats The Royal Tenenbaums and Punch-Drunk Love, is testament to it staying the relatively short test of time since its release just over a decade ago.
As an aside, Baumbach and Wes Anderson exchanged scripts for Squid and Tenenbaums, wrote The Life Aquatic together, and only once that had been released did Baumbach get around to actually making this film a reality.
Back to 2005, TSATW, notched up a single Academy Award nomination for original screenplay, which went, absurdly, to the manipulative garbage of Crash. But fared, as you’d expect, better at the Independent Spirit Awards, getting nominated for Best Picture (which went to Brokeback Mountain), Best Director (Ang Lee – Brokeback Mountain) and Best Screenplay (Dan Futterman – Capote). Daniels, Linney and Eisenberg were all nominated in the acting categories only to miss out to Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Felicity Huffman (Transamerica) and Matt Dillon (Crash).
While other films from that year, Thumbsucker, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Mysterious Skin, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – all well worthy of praise – have perhaps fallen out of many a cinemagoer’s consciousness, The Squid and the Whale has rightly remained at the top of that pile.
Its particular blend of tragedy and comedy proves the old idea that the more specific you make a story the more universal it becomes. While everything from the Brooklyn setting and the literary parents right down to the Donnay tennis rackets is pure Baumbach, the pain of seeing a family at war is achingly relatable (even for those of us who have thankfully been spared messy parental issues, separation and custody battles – thank you mum and dad). All carried out with an incredibly tight script, excellent visual storytelling and fantastic performances all round.
So, tennis, and that opening scene. Mild spoilers from here out, more thematic than plot-related.
“Mom and me versus you and Dad.” The youngest family member, Frank Berkman (Owen Kline), sets the sides as he and his big brother Walt (Eisenberg) pair off with mum Joan (Linney) and dad Bernard (Daniels) respectively. Walt is sensitive, open, like Joan, whereas Walt idolises his closed-off, proud and academically arrogant father, hiding behind a wall of intellectualism which isn’t truly earned. The net acts as a clear divider between the two teams. There are rules, clear lines and boundaries within which the family should operate. But what is meant to be a fun activity soon turns out to be a back-and-forth war where Bernard is more interested in winning, and showing his superiority (even in sport, something which he repeatedly says isn’t “serious”).
When an argument ensues over whether a shot was in or out, he makes the call, in his own favour, naturally. And Bernard is more than happy to expose his wife’s weakness, telling Walt to aim for her sloppy backhand. And after a few aggressive attempts to exploit it, Joan is repeatedly pelted with the ball and walks out on the game. Intentional or not, she’s the one getting hurt and the whole family suffers.
However, this Walt’s film more so than anyone else’s. There’s a reason it’s called The Squid and the Whale, which we’ll get to later. This isn’t a simple examination of one bad husband; it’s a tragic family portrait, an examination of what happens when two people grow apart, when a relationship has run its course.
Yes, Bernard is a difficult man (a term he often aims at other people to deflect any wrongdoing away from himself), he’s overbearing, cheap, petty and has an unearned air of superiority, describing Kafka as one of his predecessors, and informing people which books are worth reading or not at any given opportunity, but Joan isn’t a two-dimensional saint. She has had affairs, and has seemingly left clues around for Bernard to find, a “torture” he has carried around with him for years (and if I had to single out one line in the film as an example of incredible acting, Jeff Daniels revealing this fact would take the crown). Does he deserve to be cheated on? Probably not. But she admits that she had affairs in previous relationships too.
There’s a hidden depth to the family’s unhappiness that cuts like Hemingway’s iceberg theory. You get glimpses like this of where the relationship fractured, but there’s never a simple solution as to where the blame lies. And this is where The Squid and the Whale’s tragedy lies. You can’t point a righteous finger at any one person, you just see four people in immense pain.
Walt, made in his father’s image, has built up a wall to shield himself from this anguish. But cracks start to show. When he wins a school talent contest by stealing a song, only to be found out later, it is suitably Pink Floyd’s Hey You, a song from their concept album The Wall where the narrator has successfully built up a barrier to all the sufferings in the world only to find that self-made isolation unbearable. This is Walt’s symbolic cry for help.
He’s sent to the school therapist where he explains his childhood fear of the diorama Epic Encounter at the American Museum of Natural History, which depicts a sperm whale and giant squid, two behemoths locked in a never-ending battle. As a boy, before his brother was born, his mother would take him to visit and each time he’d be too scared to look at it without peeking through fingers. She would have to explain it to him to make it less frightening.
Now that his own family’s ceaseless battle has caused irreparable damage, Walt, on the cusp of young manhood, is finally starting to see through Bernard’s bluster, to shake the shackles of an identity entirely built around a false ideal of a father he worshiped, he’s finally able to look upon the conflict with eyes wide open, to tear down the wall and confront the pain head on, and hopefully become a man of his own making.
The Squid and the Whale is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the Criterion Collection.
Special features include:
- New interviews with Baumbach and actors Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, and Laura Linney
- New conversation about the score and other music in the film between Baumbach and composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips
- Behind The Squid and the Whale, a 2004 documentary featuring on-set footage and cast interviews
- Audition footage