Watching Yellow Brick Road is like being allowed to gaze upon the Mona Lisa while being forced to drink a mug of hot piss.
Half Nelson is an odd film; it’s certainly unusual to see Ryan Gosling, an up and coming A-list actor, star in such a seemingly low key movie. However as with most things it’s a movie with more depth and texture than many may expect. It operates with a subtly not seen in major productions and actually tries to implement a lot subtext, but whether it succeeds or not is a different question.
The name ‘Half Nelson’ poses a question but you’re not quite sure what at first. Many may look at it as a literal definition, referring to the wrestling movie it’s named after and I wouldn’t disagree with that reading. Throughout the movie people struggle with commitments and vices that not only consume them but take a hold of them until it destroys them, similar to the chokehold the movie is named after. Yet I think that linear reading of the title would do the movie a disservice. I think a much larger emphasis should be but on the definition of a ‘half‘ as it symbolises the duality of the characters and their loss of a holistic identity. The film does this as it follows and explores the rise and fall of three characters, Dan Dunne, Drey and Karen, Dray’s mother. The film explores three thematic elements throughout, all of which revolve around a consuming indulgence that ends up characterising and defining its’ characters. It’s a movie that criticizes the black and white definitions we impose on people, and the fact that we characterise others through the things they do or consume rather than who they are. This is also stated in the constant references to the America’s Civil Rights Movement and the unfair judgments made on people due to superfluous differences.
Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is an engaging teacher that wants to be worthy of affection and attention, however in order to achieve this affirmation he wallows in himself using drugs as an escape. While this concept is insightful it fails to be engaging. That’s why Drey exists as such a prominent figure, she’s a character scarred by excessive indulgences of those around her but not necessarily any of her own. This makes her far more relatable and enjoyable as a character. She reacts as if she is out of her depth in this subject and that’s quite gratifying for an audience who may also be uncomfortable with the subject matter. But her character doesn’t just exist as audience insertion as she’s also got her own motivations. Most of them stem from her Brother’s imprisonment and abuses with drugs which has left her with an insatiable guilt and irking to prevent this abuse from ever destroying someone again. This remains her main motivation throughout the film and it leads her to pull Dan out of his intoxications and give him value and purpose without the help of drugs. However there’s also Drey’s Mother, Karen, to account for. She’s a character who doesn’t have major screen time but still has a large role and impact on the story. She’s a cop, a seriously committed one. She’s a workaholic who gets little time to be with what’s left of her broken family and even then has little to no energy left to engage meaningfully with her daughter. Not through a lack of trying mind you. She represents another extreme case of damaging indulgence just like Dan, but instead of an obsession with a toxicant she has an obsession with her work. It’s portrayed just as addictive and consuming as any drug habit and even as another form of dangerous escapism.
This Becomes the first major criticism the movie wages, it wants to tackle the concept of balance in our society. It dissects the way we live our lives by a boom or bust mentality and how achieving a security within ourselves without the help of an external identity like a drug habit or a job is difficult. This brings us to the second message where the film claims that not having balance is explicitly harmful to not only yourself but those around you. However the movie offers no concrete solution to this problem and so you come away feeling slightly empty and awkward. There’s a lot of commentary in this story but none of it seems to have a direction that pays off. Sure the scenes of addiction and consumption in an object or ideal are powerful and insightful but the film offers little more outside this. It doesn’t so much discuss these ideas rather than displays them, as if it has a pretension that it’s uniquely perceptive.
The third and final criticism from the film is about identification of both how we identify ourselves and others. It poses the idea that we classify people by their practices, skin tones and backgrounds and it’s something Dan constantly has to battle with. In one scene he’s quietly asked if he’s a communist because he has a book on the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. He’s flummoxed by this question as he’s clearly never contemplated the idea himself. Dan has never had to identify himself like that because he identifies himself as a teacher and a drug taker. However the character that poses this question doesn’t understand Dan’s own identification and so has to find classification in what he owns. This idea is inferred several more times throughout the movie, specifically through the referencing of the Civil Rights Movement. It reflects on American history and its own twisted portrayals of individual groups then plays it back in the story. Dan is a character that becomes marked even by his own classmates, he’s part of the ‘system’, the ‘man’ and even though he disagrees with this classification he understands why it exists. He even challenges the children’s logic and asks them why they internalized him like so and make these presumptions. It’s a nice bit of commentary that echoes the mentality of people back in the 1960’s and is one of the nicer moments of the film were it is void of all hubris. Ultimately Dan arrives at the conclusion that these primitive characterisations of people are just part of a native understanding people have of the World around them and there’s little he can do to alter that, even as a teacher.
The moral of the story is rather muted by the end of the film, but there is a message. Lost people use things like drugs and their work to find themselves, create affirmation and even an identity. Yet this is not how you should define people yourself. This is a harmful identity that is void of any real character or connection with the person behind them. Even though they may identify themselves through these objects they are still not these objects. That’s the message the film wants to ultimately convey, it’s a discussion about our flaws and failings in understanding people simply as people. We don’t warrant others with the values we identify ourselves with, as those our exclusive to us. Instead our opinions of others are cultivated by cultural norms and practices which ultimately limit our empathy and understanding of others.