The Sensation of Sight
Well Worth A Peek

The films of David Lean, while almost without exception brilliant masterpieces of exquisite visual design, acting craft, and verbal sophistication, usually leave me emotionally cold.  As art, they astound me.  As tonic for the soul, they don’t do much.

Every once in a while, however, a small, quiet, and very imperfect work of art comes along that profoundly moves me.  Narrative films in this category include Mindwalk, Dust Devil, The Jack Bull, Once, The Dead Girl, and Steel City.

Add another: The Sensation of Sight.

I screened this film at what would turn out to be a pivotal time in my life and in my marriage, as Jenn I were struggling through the grief of disability.  For six long years, Jenn’s health has been in a steady and serious decline, with outlandish medical complications piling up one after the other.  A pseudo-narcoleptic sleep disorder took her out of the workplace a year ago, and during the last six months osteoporosis has led to over twenty rib fractures.  Jenn is 36. 

David Strathairn as Finn in The Sensation of SightFour years ago, we were forced to acknowledge that misery was no longer just a temporary state; in September, in the throes of physical anguish, we had to also begin contemplating a long future with unabated pain.  The grief has been, at times, nearly unbearable.

The state of grief is the central theme of The Sensation of Sight.  At its center is Finn, a traumatized former high school teacher who now wanders the streets of a small New Hampshire town selling volumes of the encyclopedia from a Radio Flyer.  Alice is on the run with her young child, living in a boarding house she shares with Finn.  Daisy tries to keep a stiff upper lip while nursing her father through a profound depression.  Dylan is back in town after a long forced absence, and Drifter is haunted by a tragic death.

Aside from the star-crossed paths that these characters (and others) share, they have all suffered devastating loss—some more recently than others—and are all in need of healing from profound grief.

I find it curious that, upon reflection, the film feels less Altmanesque than it should.  Like Crash—or more recently, Snow AngelsThe Sensation of Sight reaches exceedingly far in bringing disparate storylines together in often improbable ways.  Even more so than Gosford Park, the film also is so artily quiet and austere in tone that it often feels like you’d jump if you heard a pin drop somewhere down the street.  But somehow the sum of director Aaron J. Wiederspahn’s directorial debut comes off as far more organic than many of its cinematic siblings.  And this is because, whatever failings the film might have, it succeeds on a great many levels.

First and foremost, a story which ought to be melodramatically predictable never quite goes where you expect it. From the extended cryptic opening shot to the conclusion in which we finally determine that shot’s significance, this is a domestic mystery at heart; and the questions it raises—Who is Drifter’s shadow? Why is Finn selling single volumes of an encyclopedia set? How is Dylan connected to anybody?  Why does that kid run away from what appears to be a dead body?—are all creatively and satisfyingly answered.  None of Wiederspahn’s plot twists come off as story conference whims or the inventions of a too-clever-for words screenwriting phenom.

Second, the production and sound design are a completely perfect match for the subject matter and tone.  They are spare, precise, elegant, somber, poignant, and haunting.

Third, the performances are all absolutely first rate.  Characters in grief can often come off as completely drained emotional ciphers, particularly when we don’t know the cause of their pain.  But Wiederspahn coaxes subtleties out of each of his cast members that remind us of the humanity within us all.  Like Snow Angels, Steel City, and The Dead Girl, The Sensation of Sight is a cinematic world occupied not by Hollywood personalities or comic book archetypes but by real people with real faces, bodies, and behaviors.  Even in a completely silent role, Joe Mazzello communicates more reality under Wiederspahn’s direction than most of the cast of The Women combined.

Leading the list here is David Strathairn as Finn in what may well be the defining performance of his career, even if it isn’t worthy of the Academy’s attention.  Also deserving special mention are Jane Adams as Alice, Daniel Gillies as Dylan, and Elisabeth Waterston as Daisy—but I could go at length about everyone in Sensation.

So how did this film affect me?  It showed me that living in grief can be debilitating, that it’s not fair to the people around you, and that it’s not fair to yourself.  At some point you have to close the door on what no longer can be and open the door to what the future holds—even if it is a world of pain.  At least it’s yours, and at least you feel it.

The Sensation of Sight is rated R for “some language.”  I’m actually glad that Wiederspahn’s script includes some salty talk; otherwise the film might have merely earned a PG-13 for “thematic material.”  But this story could come as quite a shock were it not for its R rating.  It’s a film for thought, and a film for adult reflection—and supervision where necessary.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg viewed a promotional screener of The Sensation of Sight, now available on DVD.