A manual for living with grief
“I’m not here for the fun part,” Doug Riley (James Gandolfini) informs 16-year-old runaway stripper Mallory (Kristen Stewart) when she takes him upstairs to a private room in the New Orleans strip club she dances in. What he is here for is to escape his colleagues at the dull plumbing supplies convention he’s attending and the grief that’s threatening to swallow him whole. Several years earlier, his then 15-year-old daughter, Emily, died in a fiery car crash. Since then, his life in suburban Indianapolis with his wife of thirty years, Lois (Melissa Leo), has been shrouded in silence. They barely look at each other and never discuss their pain. To make matters worse, Doug is disturbed by the plot and headstone that Lois has prepaid for them alongside their daughter’s grave, and decides he’s not done with living yet. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, Welcome to the Rileys is the second feature from Jake Scott (son of Ridley). It explores divergent experiences of grief that collide in the desire for peace and love, suggesting that sometimes you have to leave convention or your comfort zone behind in order to find it.
Extending the idea of American family values
American independent cinema is full of strange pairings and Welcome to the Rileys adds a new odd couple to the mix. Doug and Mallory (who also goes by a number of different names) become dependent on each other. The film disrupts our expectations about how this story will play out – there’s no sexual contact between them and Mallory finds she needs Doug’s protection and guidance as much as she needs his money. Doug is willing to oblige on all counts, paying her $100 a day just so he can live in her rundown house. He takes on a fatherly role in Mallory’s chaotic life, suggesting she swear less, cleans her house, makes sure she eats, and teaches her how to make a bed properly. These lessons in life are both amusing and deeply touching – we understand what Mallory doesn’t, that Doug is using their alliance to heal his own wounds. It’s a new view of American family values, often so rigid in their construction. When Doug’s agoraphobic wife Lois joins them, after a brilliant sequence of false starts to get her out of the house, into the car, and on the road, this substitute family unit becomes something else again.
The second coming of Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart’s first appearance in Welcome to the Rileys sees her scantily clad in underwear, colossal platform shoes, and what appear to be Band-Aids covering her nipples. She emerges from the darkness, dancing on the bar in front of Doug, offering him a private lap dance, or any other number of additional services she’s willing to supply for a fee. This image of Stewart might have been a shock to many of the fans that saw her role as Bella Swan in the Twilight series as definitive. Welcome to the Rileys emerged in the midst of her work on the vampire franchise –The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2 were still to be released. But it is also a sign of things to come – she’s vulnerable and unsympathetic in equal parts here, bringing new complexity to her screen persona. Welcome to the Rileys might be the start of Stewart’s wholesale dismantling of the shackles of teen stardom that has exploded in a series of critically acclaimed performances in recent arthouse fare like The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Personal Shopper (2016), and Certain Women (2016).
The softer side of James Gandolfini
Most of the late James Gandolfini’s filmography works to shatter our perception of him as a menacing, tough guy, a view formed in the cultural zeitgeist by his exquisitely nuanced work as New Jersey mob boss, Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. But that description of Gandolfini never did him justice anyway. Even as Tony he was complex – never one-note brutal, but always hinting at vulnerability beneath his hulking frame; his emotional range as colossal as the rest of him. As Doug Riley, Gandolfini makes use of that potent physical presence, from the crumpled shuffle of his feet, to the weight of him settling into the mattress beside Lois, to the slow, deliberate way he smokes a cigarette, so we can almost see the burden of his grief resting like lead between his shoulder blades.
Watch 'Welcome to the Rileys' at SBS On Demand
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