The Details would be cloying if it were not for the way it finds the chink in my formidable armour—that wall that goes up when I think I’m being fed a cheap line—and makes me care about these icky people. I feared that this movie would be in keeping with a recent trend in black comedies that celebrate the hilarity of people behaving badly towards one another. And for the first third, I was fairly certain that the film was going to disgust me as much as, say, The Hangover. However, about halfway through, it started to… well… get under my skin. It is not at all subtle and yet there is a conscience lurking beneath the conspicuous antics. I do not suggest the the film is in the same league as Dostoyevsky‘s Crime and Punishment, but it shares significant thematic similarities and ample resonance.
The film has been criticized for being “off-balance”—that it cannot quite negotiate between cartoonishness and moral sensitivity. The film does shift about uncomfortably, even awkwardly, but I don’t consider this a flaw in the storytelling. The experience of the film is designed to mirror the experience of our protagonist as he haphazardly tries to find a balance between being nice and being good.
The Details is, at its core, about the difference between nice and good. Niceness is easy, on the giving and receiving ends. Goodness is a constant challenge and, despite the fact that it often requires a certain unpleasantness, is ultimately more rewarding. You can get away with a lot if you’re nice, but there is a cost.
Jeff Lang has an average, but decent, life—a job, a wife, a young child and a house. This life starts to fall apart when a family of raccoons start tearing up the sod in his back yard. At the same time, he’s begun renovations to the house that have not been approved. These two occurrences set in motion a series of social disasters (from infidelity to murder) that threaten to dismantle the very nice life he has built up.
Tobey Maguire has a pleasant everyman sort of persona—with a touch of smarminess—that works perfectly for this particular character. It is, however, Laura Linney as the unbalanced next-door neighbour, Lila, who really strikes a cord with me. While she’s written cartoonishly, Linney manages to convey the loneliness and desperation lurking beneath her crazy-cat-lady shenanigans.
The film is not in the least bit subtle; it is a flamboyant morality play. In the middle, it grinds to a halt as Ray Liotta‘s character lectures Jeff about his moral bankruptcy and cowardice. Jeff had slept with his wife, and was given a choice to either come clean (to his wife) or fork over a financially crippling hundred thousand dollars in cash. Jeff chooses the latter, and pays for it dearly—financially and spiritually.
From this point on, Jeff tries to save his soul by committing himself to helping a friend in need. In a wildly ironic turn of events, this ends up further damning him when the friend takes the life of the crazy neighbour who threatens to dismantle Jeff’s domestic life.
At this point, the plot has become so melodramatic it almost loses its potency. It starts to become quite unreal and so, cleverly, the film’s writer and director (Jacob Aaron Estes) immediately shifts gears again with a fantastic confessional scene in which Jeff finally comes clean to his wife, Nealy (Elizabeth Banks), about everything from the cheating to the murder. I was worried that Nealy’s reaction would somehow play up the unreality, but instead, she is realistically horrified and overwhelmed. They decide, though, in a very rational way, to go on with life as if nothing has happened.
In the final scene, we gaze upon Jeff and his family basking in the sun that shines down on their lush new backyard garden. They will continue to be the nice people the world expects them to be, but they will be plagued by uncertainty because they know they are not good people, just nice—that the life they have built is empty and sits on a weak foundation. The outwardly pleasant scene of happiness and fertility is underpinned by the awful awareness of what lies beneath. The poisoned raccoons will not be feeding on his garden, but the cowardice and deceit lurking inside Jeff will cause everything to rot… starting with his soul.
The Details (2011)
Written and Directed by: Jacob Aaron Estes
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney, and Ray Liotta