We don’t get a lot of movies focusing on sixtysomethig widows, and Diane isn’t likely to inspire more of them. It’s not that the film is bad; Kent Jones, a critic and documentarian making his fiction debut as a writer and director, delivers a brave and bracing work of cinema. It’s that Diane is brutally honest about the losses that can define that stage of life: losses of family, of friends, of your own health. And it ends with not even a tinge of hope, but the bluntest sort of grim reality.
So buckle in. Mary Kay Place plays the title character, a woman who fills her days traveling from one Massachusetts burg to the next, tending to a cancer-stricken cousin in the hospital, then an uncle recovering from hip-replacement surgery, then ending her days by serving in the soup kitchen at a local church. She’s gracious, never overbearing, honest about the pain. One of the diners at the soup kitchen tells her late in the film, “When you serve me, Diane, I feel sanctified.” We believe it.
But this is no portrait of a saint. With its funereal organ touches on the soundtrack and endless POV shots of the same roads being traversed back and forth, Jones documents the personal burden of care on the caregiver. Diane sits with people in the shittiest moments of their lives, hardly bothering to remove her coat because someone else, whose life is in an even shittier spot, awaits her next visit. No miracles occur; no personal breakthroughs are made. People keep leaving. Death continues its advance.
Diane is brutally honest about the losses that can define this stage of life.
And what good do these good deeds do her? The person Diane cares for the most—too much, her friends tell her—is her son Brian (Jake Lacy), a recovered drug addict whom she suspects may be using again. The tragedy here is that her caretaking instincts and abilities are useless in this situation. Whereas everyone else appreciates and anticipates Diane’s efforts, her son wants nothing to do with her.
Place, an actress with decades of film and television experience but never a triumphant Hollywood moment, has received numerous accolades for her performance. But I’ll confess that I found some of the scenes between Diane and Brian declarative and shaky. Place has a far more natural presence in the busy moments of familial care, and gets one undeniable powerhouse solo sequence. Distraught over Brian, Diane hits a bar she used to frequent, orders way too many margaritas, and proceeds to dance the night away with the jukebox. It’s sad, vulnerable, and completely understandable. The kicker? When some of those she’s cared for show up to chaperone her home.
Perhaps all of this has made Diane seem matter-of-fact, maybe even mundane. But Jones gradually weaves into the fabric of the film touches of transcendental cinema (in the mode of Bresson, Dryer, and their acolyte, Paul Schrader). Time-lapse photography and blurred focus come into play, transporting Diane outside of her drab routine into a realm that melds memory with spiritual visions. Then there is the final scene, in which Diane’s thoughts loop over each other—via voiceover—in a way that imbues everyday mundanity with a growing sense of panic. As I said, Diane doesn’t pull any punches about the latter stages of life on earth. It’s a movie that calls it like it sees it, and could use some transcendental care of its own.