After his masterful lead performances in “Selma” and “Nightingale,” and a slew of stellar supporting parts before that, David Oyelowo has latched into the type of groove as an actor where one would be willing to watch him do just about anything. Maris Curran’s deliberately paced grief-drama “Five Nights in Maine” at times puts that willingness to the test, following Oyelowo in claustrophobically tight angles as he silently washes dishes, paces slowly through sparsely furnished rooms, smokes, and makes egg salad. Attempting to naturalistically capture the hugely internal process of mourning, but rarely managing to offer much of an opening into that process, Curran’s tasteful, challenging yet ultimately inscrutable debut feature never quite lives up to the caliber of her fine cast.
Shot in crisp tones with lingering handheld cameras, “Five Nights in Maine” zeroes in close on Sherwin (Oyelowo), an Atlanta man who has one tender moment with his wife, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg), before learning in a subsequent scene that she’s been killed in a car accident. Marooned in his home with a liquor bottle, and too paralyzed to deal with funeral arrangements, he impulsively takes up an offer from his estranged mother-in-law — the frosty, cancer-ridden Lucinda (Dianne Wiest) — to join her at her home in rural Maine.
We never learn much about Sherwin’s life before the accident, though there are clearly some rough patches in his relationship with Lucinda; Fiona visited her shortly before her death, and the trip obviously didn’t go well. As the two navigate one awkward dinner-table encounter after another over the next five nights, Sherwin’s shell-shocked depression slowly evolves into a quiet anger at his unsympathetic host.
In the absence of much understanding of either of these characters, a number of scenes and exchanges play almost like Rorschach tests, inviting viewers to fill in the details themselves. Curran’s refusal to hand-hold or prod her characters into exposition is clearly intentional, and theoretically admirable; grief, the film seems to argue, is an emotion that often plays out too far beneath the surface for an outside observer to really see it for what it is. But too frequently the film settles for arm’s-length mimesis of this behavior, rather than attempting to mine it for some sort of deeper truth, and a few of the film’s themes are both obvious and too obliquely handled to really connect.
The topic of race, for example — Sherwin appears to be the only black person in this particular county — is never directly addressed, but it’s not hard to guess why he keeps attracting hostile stares when he ventures into town. Likewise, Sherwin’s recurring scenes of dishwashing do lead up to a moment of incredibly subtle, blink-and-you-miss-it catharsis, but it’s an example of the type of open-ended symbolism that tends to work more naturally on the page than on the screen.
Tasked with holding the audience’s attention even when the camera is lingering on the back of his head for long stretches, Oyelowo delivers a characteristically precise, controlled performance, never stooping to squeeze easy pathos out of his character’s pain. Wiest, though given a saltier, chewier character to play, never quite locates a middle ground between Lucinda’s terminal vulnerability and propensity for sudden verbal cruelty. And Rosie Perez, who plays Lucinda’s full-time nurse, has a number of hesitantly sympathetic exchanges with Oyelowo that are never allowed to develop, her character ultimately a third wheel spinning alongside this two-hander.
Curran does display a intriguingly understated, mature approach for such a young director, and Sofian El Fani’s photography of the beautiful yet cheerless Maine locations offers an ideal visual counterpart to the buttoned-down narrative that plays out within them.