Giving an electrifying performance as a mentally disturbed young man, Rory Culkin dominates every scene of “Gabriel,” writer-director Lou Howe’s indie debut. But that domination proves both the film’s greatest strength and its biggest weakness: As different aspects of the character’s unchanging mentality are skillfully revealed, Howe successfully alters viewers’ perceptions. But instead of having his protagonist interact with other fully formed personalities, the script sets up a gallery of one-dimensional characters who exist solely to reveal themselves as indifferent to his needs or totally fixated on them. An admirable if downbeat character study, “Gabriel” still sinks into a psychological quagmire that’s unlikely to captivate arthouse audiences.
Gabriel (Culkin) has just been tentatively released from the asylum where he spent the past several years. This, everyone solemnly informs him, will be his last chance to demonstrate that he’s capable of functioning outside captivity by going home to his family, taking his meds and assuming his adult responsibilities. But Gabriel’s agenda for achieving normality differs significantly from that of his keepers, involving a quixotic (or perhaps merely insane) plan to find and marry Alice, a girl with whom he shared a childhood romance, but whom he hasn’t seen since. What ensues is a running battle between his family members, who want him safely homebound, and Gabriel, who keeps running off to pursue his quest.
The viewer tends to identify completely with Gabriel when, in an early scene, his innocent, playful exchange with a little girl on a bus is angrily misconstrued by her mother. Though viewers are treated to a disquieting display of Gabriel’s finger-biting nervousness and house-punching impatience as his initial search for Alice proves fruitless, the constant admonitions of his straight-arrow, law-studying older brother, Matt (David Call), and the tearful, smothering attentions of mama Meredith (Deirdre O’Connell), seem expressly designed to drive poor Gabriel nuts, making his pursuit of the one person who might treat him like an equal seem understandable.
But after Gabriel escapes home for Gotham in pursuit of his lady love, everything in the film conspires to jack up his oddness quotient. He tunes out while staring at debris on subway tracks and is tortured by the amped-up sound of an overhead fan. He evinces growing paranoia, arming himself with a knife and accusing his family of wanting him dead, musing aloud if they shouldn’t die instead. Meanwhile, individual family members come into clearer focus. But instead of representing something outside Gabriel’s imprisoning subjectivity, they serve instead to double it, defining themselves as survivors of his father’s similar mental illness and ultimate suicide, which hangs over all their fears.
Gabriel’s search gives the film definite, even somewhat suspenseful shape, and Alice (Emily Meade), when she finally appears, turns out to be anything but anticlimactic. But Culkin, no matter how charismatic his presence, is by definition morosely one-note, unable to adapt or change. Wyatt Garfield’s camera can only alternate between medium shots of hunched-over vulnerability and startling closeup glimpses of obsession-lit eyes. Gabriel’s dilemma, though suitably heartbreaking, and goosed along by Patrick Higgins’ tension-stringed score, ultimately becomes as wearisome to viewers as it is to his exhausted clan.