Rory Culkin has come a long way since playing a kid in a tinfoil hat in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.
Culkin stars as the titular character in writer-director Lou Howe’s first feature Gabriel, which poignantly explores a subdued yet dangerous case of living with mental illness. We first meet Gabe, as he prefers to be called, on a lonely bus ride to an unknown college campus. He is on the search for Alice, a girlfriend from the recent past, only to find that she’s not living in the dorms, nor is she at her off-campus housing. Gabe’s persistence in finding her is mildly disturbing, almost stalker like, but it’s at the point when we’re just starting to get the creeps from this guy that we realize there’s something wrong; this kid is actually rather ill. Gabe was apparently supposed to hop the bus back home to his family, not set out on a lovelorn journey to reunite with an old flame.
Culkin’s performance in Howe’s debut is quite possibly the best of his career so far. He makes the character both tender and troubled. He apologizes to strangers for his weird behavior, and is genuinely appreciative of anyone in his path that has to put up with him; anyone except perhaps his family. Deirdre O’Connell as Gabriel’s mother Meredith practically embodies the term “patience is a virtue.” The actress is absolutely wonderful in the role; her serenity during Gabriel’s breakdowns coupled with her sternness in the aftermath is exactly how one hopes a mother of the mentally ill would behave. This authenticity is the most intriguing aspect of Gabriel’s family, which is rounded out by Gabriel’s older brother played by David Call, and his “Nonny,” played with sass and affection by Lynn Cohen. Where many films about mental illness would reveal a relative that might treat Gabriel with the very resentful bitterness that he expects, none of them resorts to the type of behavior that would fulfill his paranoia. It’s a heartbreaking reminder that those who suffer from mental illness often come from homes filled with love.
Howe’s script is a slow burn and Gabriel’s illness creeps up throughout the film. Where at the start he might seem like just another psycho-stalker boyfriend, by the time he is reunited with Alice (Emily Meade) our concern for Gabriel’s well-being extends from him to the people he might harm. Howe’s camera closely examines minuscule facts of life, the spinning blades of a ceiling fan for example, or wind blowing through bare branches, to offer insight into Gabriel’s off-medication mind. Tiny things that one would usually ignore are, for him, haunting memories from the past. But visual interests aside, Gabriel is really an actor’s vehicle, and Culkin confidently takes the wheel.
One element of the film that attempts to convince the viewer that there is still hope for Gabriel’s quest is its lovely score. Despite the gloominess of the subject matter, the story itself isn’t weighed down by somber musical cues. Instead, the motifs, dominated by string instruments, are simultaneously jovial and frantic, representative of Gabriel’s devotion to finding his long lost love.
This all makes Gabriel sound rather miserable and depressing, but Culkin’s fantastic performance also includes a handful of instances of humor, and the film on the whole evokes our pity for the character rather than feelings of utter hopelessness. Though the general reaction probably depends on one’s own experience with the mentally ill, and for some, Gabriel could very well resonate too close to home.