Matthew Teague’s article “The Friend,” which ran in Esquire about six years ago, is not the work of someone who doesn’t know exactly what they’re doing in coming up with a title. It can be a torturous read, especially if you are no stranger to prolonged death, but while it has to do with death, that isn’t what it’s about. Teague explains it himself when at one point Dane, the friend, says to him, “I thought you were writing about her,” and he responds, “So did I.”
Our Friend covers more ground than the article, although it bewilderingly also does not, but it doesn’t change the focus, and that’s an achievement in itself. Matt (Casey Affleck) is slowly going to come to grips with the fact that his wife, Nicole (Dakota Johnson), is dying of cancer. It’s a long, slow death, and Matt is not only faced with an unimaginable reality, but he’s struck by the fact that no one ever tells you what death is really like. Worse, perhaps, within the realm of shattering his reality, is the fact that people more familiar with such things keep telling him things he can’t believe they would say, or want him to hear – like that before it’s all over he will pray for it to just end.
Matt also has two young daughters, and he and Nicole obviously struggle with the best way to manage their trip through the loss of their mother. When Matt’s world isn’t the gradual deterioration of his wife, or her bounce back periods when she pretends she’s fine, it’s a constant confrontation with the existence that’s fast approaching, when he’s a single parent with kids who are understandably lashing out.
But, that’s a story you could tell a hundred times a day, and while Matt and Nicole are certainly unique people with their own set of relationship quirks, it’s Dane (Jason Segel) that stands out as demanding exploration. An old friend of the couple, Dane offers to come help out for a couple of weeks, and never leaves.
“Important,” is a word that loses all meaning in wandering through this life experience, because what could ever be referred to as not important, or judged more or less important than anything else? Still, when Matt is forced to reflect, Dane’s abandonment of his own life, his job, and his own relationship, is undeniably… interesting. Especially when confronted with the idea that it simply never occurred to Dane not to do it.
Our Friend is a film that curiously is best in all the ways that don’t stand out, which makes it unlikely it will manage the attention it truly deserves. Affleck and Johnson at least have roles that give them some room to demonstrate abilities in ways that are apt to be noticed, and they both give solid efforts. Affleck reminds of his turn in Manchester by the Sea, though he doesn’t have to give us the conflict that made that role shine. Segel, on the other hand, has to play a quiet unicorn who is not only a nearly unbelievable character, but one who has no real interest in revealing himself. The rub is that when he is, for example, talking to his girlfriend he has to believably offer up some insight into a person who doesn’t seem to understand the language. She wants him to explain why he’s doing what he’s doing, he can’t answer, but he has to give us a window he can’t give her. He does, and it’s deceptively complex.
Similarly, the film is directed with a hand and eye toward simplicity, which makes it seem like anyone might have done it, but it’s a triumph of subtlety for Gabriela Cowperthwaite (of Blackfish fame). At times it almost feels like a documentary, a teasing out of that which makes this rare creature tick.
The title should have remained, because it has its own meaning and relays that a slightly different undertaking will follow. He was always “our friend,” even pre-crucible, but the story is finding out who he really is.