A certain pungency of feeling — as implied by that uninviting but ultimately appropriate title — steams from the surface of “Stinking Heaven,” Nathan Silver’s fifth and most furiously combative feature. Employing unleashed improvisation and a rough-and-ready video aesthetic to convey turbulent interpersonal conflict at a Garden State commune for recovering addicts, this prickly, perceptive miniature arguably reps a tougher arthouse proposition than Silver’s previous shoestring character studies. Those who stick out its short-and-sour duration, however, will note a deepening timbre in Silver’s already distinctive storytelling voice, as he deftly balances curdled comedy with candid humanism. With his 2014 standout “Uncertain Terms” having secured U.S. distribution only this week, “Heaven” hopefully won’t be kept waiting.
The theme of irregular communal households — and the makeshift families that fill them — is already a consistent one in Silver’s work: The helmer appears fascinated by the dysfunctional dynamics that draw and (barely) keep consenting adults under a single roof. As in “Uncertain Terms,” which revolved around a sanctuary for pregnant teens, “Stinking Heaven” takes as its setting a kind of therapeutic cooperative — this time a home for former substance abusers in Passaic, N.J., owned and overseen by married ex-junkies Jim (Keith Poulson) and Lucy (Deragh Campbell). The year is 1990; marking as it does a generational bridging point between boomer hedonism and Generation X self-help philosophy, that hardly seems a random choice.
Furthermore, Silver and d.p. Adam Ginsberg drive home the film’s period-piece status by shooting on Betacam video. The indistinct lines and jaundiced tint of the resulting image — along with Paul Grimstad’s queasy synth-based score — may heighten auds’ sense of disorientation as Silver begins unpacking his characters’ complex baggage, with little in the way of preamble. Indeed, it’s tempting to classify Silver’s latest as a particularly lo-fi entry in the found-footage subgenre, detailing the practical and spiritual breakdown of a once-benevolent institution. The creeping malaise in question may not be a supernatural force, but its gradual possession of the characters here is only a few twists shy of horror territory.
It may take viewers some time to piece together the precise connection between the characters, and the reason for their cohabitation. The pic opens with the small-scale wedding of middle aged Kevin (Henri Douvry) and his significantly younger bride, Betty (Eleonore Hendricks), in Jim and Lucy’s living room; it’s only when the couple consummate their marriage in a dormitory-style bedroom, surrounded by their guests, that the unorthodox nature of their domestic setup becomes clear. (Kevin’s teenage daughter Courtney, tersely played by Tallie Medel, is also along for the uneasy ride.) Jim’s approach to rehabilitation is essentially to purge all past shame through mutual sharing of experience, no matter how private or painful.
Mandatory group therapy sessions require all tenants to re-enact the personal nadirs of their addiction — a humiliating, irresponsibly recorded process that seems to foster more suspicion than solidarity between them, and accounts for many of the film’s most discomfitingly potent sequences. When young, headstrong new arrival Ann (Hannah Gross) resists Jim’s instructions, however, the already fragile construction of the commune begins to collapse in on itself — and when Kevin is unceremoniously evicted from the home for relapsing into drug use, the group’s questioning of Jim’s unconventional (not to mention unqualified) methods reaches a destructive fever pitch.
Silver, who replicated the group’s living arrangement with his cast and crew for the duration of the shoot, conjures the unmoored hysteria and knife-edge psychological reversals that ensue via liberal improvisation with his committed ensemble. (The film actually has no screenplay citation, crediting Silver and collaborator Jack Dunphy with story only.) Whether scenes tilt toward very mordant farce or gut-stabbing trauma, there’s a compelling sense — crafted or otherwise — that the actors are driving the tone from scene to scene, with Silver and his incisive editor Stephen Gurewitz determining the emotional transitions between them. If anything, admirable as Silver’s formal economy is, the film’s intimate chaos could stand to unspool over a little longer than 70 minutes; it may end on a frayed, oddly cathartic note, but certain intriguing avenues of confrontation and revelation are left untraveled.