Sundance 2012 Review: THE SURROGATE with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt
I have just witnessed the most transformative role of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. John Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination for his Sundance hit Winter's Bone and who made waves last year with Martha Marcy May Marlene, is back with another extraordinary performance as a man suffering from polio and who must spend most of his life confined to an iron lung machine in his house. The Surrogate is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien (Hawkes), a man who overcame his limitations to become a poet and journalist. As a 40-something-year-old virgin, Hawkes takes the opportunity to meet with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), a woman who has sex with him in order to prepare him for further sexual encounters in his life. During this arrangement, O'Brien procures the advice of a smoking, drinking priest played by William H. Macy.
Hawkes is magnificent to watch, completely losing himself in an role that allows him to play against type. Surprisingly, he brings a great deal of humor to a potentially dark situation. Helen Hunt - who I talked about in an early episode of The Not Just New Movies Podcast dedicated to her 1985 film, Trancers - did a lot with a taciturn character, slowly revealing her emotions as the film went on like a pinhole poked in a dam that eventually bursts. Some may call her performance "brave," but that's just because she was naked for a lot of the movie and that's apparently what you're supposed to say when actors take their clothes off. And I've gotta say: her Massachusetts accent was hideous, going in and out at random. Aside from Hawkes' enthralling work, it's William H. Macy that's the highlight. His priest character is one of the most liberal religious figures I've seen on film, and he brings a humanity to the role that's practically unheard of with an archtype like this. He offers rational human advice instead of just saying what he thinks he's "supposed" to say due to his association with the church, and provides a welcome freshness to a wonderfully written role.
The film deals with sex more bluntly than most, another fresh aspect to an otherwise serious movie. The entire film is ostensibly about sex, but it rarely carries that mystical air our society has created around the act. It's discussed openly and directly and depicted in a matter-of-fact way that doesn't sexualize the actors. So instead of being all about sex, it's actually about the relationship Mark O'Brien forms with the women in his life, and more importantly, the one he has with himself by the end of the film. Perhaps just as compelling as the film's treatment of sex is the way it expertly presents the living conditions of someone confined to a rolling bed; a scene in which the power goes off while O'Brien is in the iron lung is gut-wrenching.
The Surrogate is a film that will have some staying power throughout 2012, with awards for its leads almost assured before we even crown the Oscar winners from last year. If you're someone who appreciates a great lead performance, it's a must-watch.