Amidst all the well-deserved hubbub surrounding Blue Valentine in 2010, another long-gestating, emotionally excoriating indie drama got lost. Namely, Welcome to the Rileys. The two films almost work as companion pieces. Instead of chronicling the collapse of a marriage, as Blue Valentine does, Welcome to the Rileys depicts the rebirth of one – arguably the more difficult task to pull off. Directed by Jake Scott from Ken Hixon’s script, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo play a couple whose marriage has dissolved in all but legal terms following the death of their daughter. Lois, the wife, has completely shut down, becoming a near catatonic shut-in. Doug, her husband, lives a life of quiet desperation, finding some limited solace in a perfunctory affair while keeping their life going. On a business trip to New Orleans, he encounters a teenage stripper named Allison, played by Kristen Stewart, who reminds him of his daughter. We watch as he drops everything – his business, his home, even his wife – to care for her. No, not in that way. Not even in the way you’d expect.
I won’t spoil the rest of the plot (I’ll leave that to the trailer below). But I will say that the film functions as a parable of grace, par excellence. Yes, it delves into some truly dark corners of human experience – its frankness about the life of a prostitute is meant to be unnerving [fair warning], but like the “gratuitous” sex in Blue Valentine, there’s nothing glorifying going on here. Instead, the realism underlines the gravity of the situation, that this is love detached from any injunction to respond or change, regardless of how destructive the behavior in question may be, or how fervently the object, Allison, may beg for something more conditional (that she can understand/reject). This is love directed at a non-theoretical sinner, and an unrepentant one at that. So we are not talking about something that targets the obscured good in a person; we are talking about something that isn’t bound by moral considerations, a love that seeks out but doesn’t assert itself by trying to fix anything. A love that, instead, just loves. Grace in other words.
Make no mistake, Welcome to the Rileys will rub your inner Pharisee the wrong way. Is Doug enabling/rewarding sin?! Isn’t he implicating himself? What about the first use of the law?! Or the obvious psychological benefit he’s deriving? Red herrings, all of them, the same sanitizing filters that prevent us from absorbing the radicality of the faith we confess. You can understand why the film took so long to come together.
These being recognizable men and women, and not divine figures, the situation eventually gets muddied. The Law enters the picture, however well-intentioned, and boy does it backfire! But the ‘deeper magic’ carries the day, and the ending rings true. The expert performances, esp by Gandolfini, certainly help. Even Kristen Stewart rises to the occasion.
Welcome to the Rileys is not for everyone. The pacing is deliberately slow, the humor fairly thin, the subject matter gritty and the mood pretty unrelenting. It is beautiful, but it is not entertainment. If it were, it probably wouldn’t be doing its themes justice, grace being R-rated and all. As a portrait, however, of how lives and marriages are saved, of how real healing occurs, of the dynamics at the very heart of the Gospel (that is, Christ himself!), Welcome to the Rileys is very welcome indeed.
Warning: the trailer, like most trailers these days, is overly long and gives away far too much.