Robin Wright Penn, who won a best actress audience award for this Seattle preem, gives an audacious performance as an abuse victim who refuses to confine herself to that role. In trying to get to the psychological bottom of the ways women enable male violence, pic starts down a difficult path but never quite gets where it’s headed. Admirable effort, with some retooling, could click with select, sympathetic female auds, but relentlessly somber tone will make it a hard sell to everyone else.
Helmer-scripter Erin Dignam takes a refreshingly non-sensationalistic approach to volatile material, using educated, thoughtful Hedda Amerson (Wright Penn), who has survived an obsessive, destructive relationship, as a departure point. It seems Hedda was the first in a line of impressionable women whose affairs with an unnamed defendant ended in some kind of suicidal act.
The sulky, bearded fellow (Anthony Lucero) has just been arraigned for the negligent homicide of his latest flame, and a long-suffering DA named Dietrickson (William Hurt) wants Hedda on the stand, along with a wheelchair-bound g.f. (Jennifer Rubin), to establish a Svengali-like pattern of malice turned inward. Hedda fell out of a window when her bad love went worse, an event her tough lawyer sister (Amy Madigan) and seemingly attentive parents (Joanna Cassidy and Paul Dooley) still can’t comprehend years later.
If Dietrickson needs Hedda’s testimony to get the wheels of justice moving, he’s bound to be disappointed, since her soliloquies on the stand are all about taking responsibility for one’s own actions. Fair enough, but the courtroom scenes are so similar in tone and staging (dark, static and hushed) to all the conversations surrounding them, that more than the DA’s case is undone. Pic, at times, appears to be an endless parade of quiet two-shots, with characters whispering in profile while the world stands still. Although the dialogue is often literate and thoughtful, it’s so vague in content that auds may get woozy trying to pick out specifics.
Particularly confusing is the role of Hedda’s clan in all the unpleasantness: Background details are occasionally floated into the ether, but nothing really illuminates the psychological puzzle. More satisfying in this regard is the pic’s design, which shows her family home, a hillside villa, to be a tastefully appointed but essentially frigid box of concrete — a buff-gray prison with exquisite views.
Likewise, water themes abound, with the info emerging that Hedda was once an Olympic swimming contender, although the stress of a wrongly learned stroke caught up with her at a pivotal time. This aquatic symbolism is one of the stronger, and more subtle, undercurrents in “Loved,” and it’s a lot more pungent than the pointless flashbacks of domestic bashing Hedda suffered at her generic lover’s hands. The failure to develop this prime mover past the cipher stage (Lucero’s affectless performance doesn’t help) keeps the focus on our heroine, but it also ensures that at least some viewers will be baffled by the whole exercise.
A subplot about the growing friendship between Hedda and Dietrickson — a gentle, divorced dad — shows promise, but their exchanges are handled in the same ruminative style that marks every other sequence. Individual scenes carry considerable lyrical power, but taken together they’re like the undifferentiated flow of a symphonic movement that keeps repeating the same mournful passage with only the most minute variations.
The unrelieved sobriety is underlined by David Baerwald’s gloomy score. On-the-fly lensing is mostly effective, even if a few passages look slapdash. And underwater sequences (with a body double for Wright Penn’s nude swim) are the most memorable, not least because nobody’s talking.
Some careful reordering of scenes, and a sharp editing of repetitious material could help make narrative slightly brighter and more shapely. But Dignam, in any case, is going for a trance-like state to which only the most committed viewers will be willing to yield. Her pic, which already has a tortured production history, deserves kudos for eschewing standard entertainment values, and Wright Penn conveys aspects of femaleness (at least the late-20th-century, all-American variety) that are rarely given screen time. But “Loved” isn’t quite as profound or polished as it needs to be to win over the unconvinced. (Hence inevitable comparisons to “Breaking the Waves.”)
Best scene, it turns out, is near the beginning, when producer Sean Penn shows up briefly as a mentally disturbed Angeleno who shakily asks Hurt’s character for a reassuring hug. This seg has a messy, disturbing and — most of all — unpredictable quality the rest of “Loved” lacks.