I’m told that Michael Almereyda bristled upon hearing critics qualify his latest film, Marjorie Prime, as a meditation following its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Having finally laid eyes on the picture for myself, I understand his reaction. “Meditation” is something you do when the grind of the real world has left you saturated with bad feeling, like a damp towel in dire need of wringing out, and all you can do is cleanse your simmering unease via hushed reflection. Marjorie Prime isn’t that. Marjorie Prime demands the undivided attention and focused concentration of its viewers, and a certain plasticity of mind and soul, because a more concrete disposition won’t necessarily allow the film to fully “land” with the viewer.
Then again, I’m not sure a single viewing with an open mind is enough to let Almereyda’s work sink in, either. Marjorie Prime is an elusive movie. You could call it dense, but calling it agile, or maybe just tricky, better describes the film’s character. Another director might have felt compelled to present Marjorie Prime as a mystery box, a riddle to be solved instead of a film to be savored, and peppered its plot with clues to vie for our attention, encouraging us to figure out the box’s secrets before its creator tips their hand. Almereyda gives not a single damn about outsmarting his viewers or his viewers outsmarting him: He’s too busy making a film. He’s also arguably just too mature of that kind of coy, cleverer-than-thou style of artistry. Like him or not, there’s no point denying how well he’s aged as a filmmaker throughout his extensive career.
I’m not sure there’s a better segue for discussing a movie that’s about precisely that—age—and all of the melancholic baggage and ennui that comes along with it. Working from Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play of the same name, Almereyda presents a tale of generational grief, in which elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith, reprising her role from the original play) is kept company in her modern seaside abode by a hologram modeled after her late husband, Walter (Jon Hamm). Walter, referred to coolly as “Walter Prime” by Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and her son in law, Jon (Tim Robbins), looks and sounds like the real thing, perfectly captured as a man in his 40s by the miracle of technology. Tess thinks the whole thing is weird. Jon less so, though he has his own problems with the Walter dynamic despite being the one who purchased him for Marjorie in the first place.
And Marjorie is slowly losing her marbles as Alzheimer’s steals away her mind, her memories, and her vitality. But Walter, at least, provides her comfort, even as his artificial presence raises questions and invites concern about bereavement, remembrance and what in the hell it means to even be a damn person. Marjorie Prime tackles the vastness of our existence in short form, wrapping inquiries of cosmic proportions inside of an intimate, deeply personal narrative that essentially functions as a relay race where death is the baton. If anything, that’s the movie’s most unnerving epiphany—that death is perhaps the only legacy our parents pass down to their kids that’s important enough to matter.
Talking about that, or writing about that, neither does Marjorie Prime much justice. In fact, meaningfully discussing the film poses a challenge unto itself. Almereyda might just be following Harrison’s blueprint, but his adaptation is rounded out by a sense of internal dimension. You could call it “scale,” if you like, but “scale” doesn’t adequately illustrate the immensity of Marjorie Prime’s central themes. Godzilla has scale, but even his size has a limit. Like the universe, the boundaries of Marjorie Prime’s contemplative scheme are endless.
What’s the purpose of humanity’s customs and traditions, the stopgaps we institute to prevent ourselves from forgetting our history and our forebears, when everything about individuals can be stored on the hard drive of a holographic projector, a digital granary storing the accumulation of details that make us, well, us? Pour people’s personal details into computers, and eventually you’ll find that you’ve backed up the entire human race (though oblivion is still just a disconnected power supply away). There’s an unspoken ethical throughline present in Marjorie Prime, a muted anxiety that maybe bringing the dead back to faux-life isn’t good, or healthy. As the film ends, you’ll have a pretty sturdy notion of where Almereyda and Harrison fall on the matter. (Imagine a room populated only with iPhones in conversation with one another, and go from there.)
Almereyda never lets us forget that Marjorie Prime is sourced from the stage, honoring its background with an emphasis on unobstructive craft and performance. It’s hard to say who, if anyone, in the cast stands out most either in quantity or quality. The film is warped around each of Almereyda’s actors enough to lend the impression of equilibrium, but Hamm and Smith both leave the most lasting marks—he an impassive but oddly warm entity, she alternately content and anxious as she inexorably moves in the direction of her fate. Of course, any Davis is good Davis, and this is very good Davis, portraying Tess’s struggle to cope with her mother’s illness and with Walter Prime with deeply felt empathy. (Robbins appears saddled with a thankless role until the film’s final chapter.) Almereyda, meanwhile films them with a calming, static aesthetic, his camera steady and composed, an observer in the midst of familial heartache.
It’s an exquisitely challenging production, one that calls for repeat viewings over years, all the better to persuade the film to surrender its meaning. How does the old saying go? That a lie told often enough becomes the truth? Such is the stuff that Marjorie Prime is made of: The lies we all tell ourselves to work through mourning and the passage of life.
Director: Michael Almereyda
Writer: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins, Jon Hamm
Release Date: August 18, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.