Bathed in neon and flickering candles, Amber Tamblyn’s unsettling Paint It Black packs a wallop from frame one. Here, making her directorial debut, Tamblyn reveals she has a remarkable cinematic eye, able to convey subtleties and disturbances in equal measure. Adapting a novel by Janet Fitch, Tamblyn and co-writer Ed Dougherty serve up a film that’s part throwback melodrama, part searing meditation on grief; something akin to a cross between Sunset Blvd. and A Single Man. Through it all, cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard paints the film in gorgeous tones that occasionally take your breath away.
Besides being a wonderful display for Tamblyn’s directorial prowess, Paint It Black is a dynamite showcase for Alia Shawkat, who gives her best performance to date here. Shawkat spends the film in a state of flux, moving from rage to despair, and there’s never a single moment where her performance is anything less than convincing and stunning. Shawkat dominates nearly every frame of this film, and the camera loves to get up close as the neon dances across her freckles and her dark eyes peer back at us. Shawkat is Josie, a nude artist’s model who’s entire life gets turned upside down after her boyfriend Michael (Rhys Wakefield) commits suicide. Through flashbacks, we see the tender, charming courtship between the two, yet Michael remains something a mystery. Josie can’t fathom why he took his own life, nor is she prepared for the hell about to be unleashed by Michael’s mother Meredith (Janet McTeer).
Brooding in her otherwise empty mansion, a Norma Desmond without a Max, Meredith is a concert pianist with serious anger issues. Almost immediately after Josie returns from identifying Michael’s body at the morgue she receives a call from Meredith, wherein Meredith clearly thinks Josie is the cause of her son’s death and threatens to have her killed in return. When Josie attends Michael’s funeral, Meredith violently attacks her, sending Josie fleeing. Meredith’s ex-husband, and Michael’s father, Cal (Alfred Molina) tracks Josie down and offers sympathy. He says tells Josie he knows that Michael loved her, and he also knows that his ex-wife can be handful. Yet he also keeps a safe distance, and later, where Josie really needs his help, he remains neutral.
Josie works up the courage to visit Meredith in her sprawling, candle-lit estate one night, and soon the two are engaged in a form of emotional warfare, finding new ways to come at each other. Meredith holds out an olive branch and takes Josie out to lunch, but it’s all a front for more trouble. Both women are in a constant state of upheaval, their eyes wet with tears, their lips pulled back into snarls.
As much as there is to admire in Paint It Black, the plotting does run a bit thin. A secondary plot about Josie starring in her friend’s black and white avant-garde movie doesn’t really pan out, and seems to only exist as an excuse to get Shawkat into some elegant gowns. The film also occasionally drags, feeling as if it’s not leading anywhere. These issues aside, Paint It Black mostly simmers, and the back and forth between Shawkat and McTeer is the real draw. McTeer is fierce and at times even terrifying, and yet the film doesn’t judge her. She’s just damaged, reeling from the death of her son and trying desperately to figure out the cause. Grief is the catalyst here, and Paint It Black is attuned to the language of raw grief and all the potential madness that comes with it.