Linoleum (2022) unfolds like the most unexpected of tales – stretched across multiple layers of narrative and symbolism that arrive at a heartfelt truth about the things that make our lives important.
After debuting last year with a reversed ghost story about a haunt that figures her own death out (Double Walker (2021)), director Colin West arrived at SXSW with a whimsical oddity that sails in a very different direction.
Once a keen astrologist and host of a children’s show about space, Cameron (Jim Gaffigan) has grown bitter and began to question the purpose of his mundane life. Work weighs down gravely on the list of disappointments, meanwhile, love affairs aren’t great with his wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn), who filed for divorce and now counts weeks until the marital shackles are lifted. What’s even worse, Cam barely connects with his two kids – daughter Nora and a son whose name remains unknown – while the only kid he truly loves – his show – seems to be driving on fumes. Feigned positivity cannot last forever.
Reality transforms in a split second when one day Cameron witnesses an inconceivable event – a vermilion car that falls from the clear blue sky and crashes in front of his eyes. Not only does the event sound bogus to his family, but becomes a final nail to the coffin of Cameron’s developing mental breakdown. Now that the collapse’s in full swing, Cameron goes against all odds, searching for more signs that would give his life a purpose.
West teases our expectations – is Linoleum (2022) a psychological drama about a man losing his grip?
Well, the answer ain’t that easy. The range of objects falling from the sky grows, and so does the number of inexplicable events, that reach a crescendo when a rocket crashes in Cameron’s backyard. Convinced about the subliminal message of this space-sent debris, the Astro-freak wakes up in the protagonist, who begins to construct his own spaceship a.k.a. the last-resort proof of his brilliance and worth. Cameron works in secret, isolating his family except for his elderly father who, quite conveniently, dabbled in space engineering in the past.
Seeing Jim Gaffigan as he loses himself in the quixotic rocket-building project brings Take Shelter (2011) to mind, and the equal zany passion of Michael Shannon’s character Curtis. Though the two films are dramatically different, both tonally and narratively, the two men share a similar pattern of mid-life breakdown. Like a water stream percolating through rocks, eroding and reshaping them, signs that cement the views of both characters begin to grow in numbers. One day it’s a red vehicle falling from the sky, and the other brings about the arrival of Cameron’s doppelganger who takes away his job (perhaps a nod to Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013)).
A key difference between the two films is that the surroundings of Michael Shannon’s character remain very grounded, and the same can’t be said about Linoleum (2022). That’s the charm of Colin West’s oddity of a film. While Jeff Nichols’ story contemplates religion and the very fact of doubting Curtis’ belief about the inevitable apocalypse, West’s far more interested in immersing in the world as it’s seen through Cameron’s eyes. Linoleum (2022) thrives on fantasizing about the potential authenticity of Cameron’s experiences. And to do so, the director incorporates a cleverly designed script.
Writing’s impeccably smart in Linoleum (2022). West morphs particular words or sentences into statements on their own, like when characters patronize each other by saying that “things aren’t that simple”. After being used in various contexts, the idea of denying the world’s simplicity unveils the true fears of both Cameron and Erin. What if their scientific pursuit after the rationalization of facts is just tantalizingly nonsensical? What if the world is, actually, that simple, meaning that science will never determine all of our existential doubts and fears?
Here comes the hard-to-swallow truth about Cameron’s scientific attitude. Despite that his show never took off, he poured his heart and soul into it. But the result, measured in views and popularity, is deplorable. A family wasn’t enough either, indicating that the American middle class status causes more torment to the man whose prime’s well behind him. It’s all in the perspective, as indicated by Colin West. Shifting from Cameron to Erin to Nora, the writer-director captures glimpses of happiness too, thus emphasizing the importance of looking at the right signs, and not the ones that cement the hopeless status quo.
West’s one hell of a philosopher, but one can’t reduce Linoleum (2022) to a series of vague ruminations. Since we’re wearing Cameron’s shoes most of the time, the omnipresent fiddling with style provides us with an inexhaustible source of entertainment. Cameron’s dorky nature dictates the structure of the film. Echoes of his wild imagination can be heard in the wondrous music by Mark Hadley, as well as seen in the cheerful, colorful set designs. Particularly dainty are the VHS cuts from Cameron’s kids’ show, which let us peek at Cameron’s whimsical, passionate soul. Jim Gaffigan captures the dim-lit energy of Cameron and the contrast between the presence and the past.
Although most of the plot revolves around Cameron, time’s divided between a bunch of supporting characters too. Rhea Seehorn shines as the conflicted wife who hopes her husband would finally knock down the wall of his own paranoia and be hers again. Crucial to the story is also the blossoming relationship of Nora and Marc, a kid that steals her smile. Katelyn Nacon and Gabriel Rush share chemistry, and though their story gets less time to capture the same intensity as Cameron’s and Erin’s, they’re essential to the brilliant finale.
Like the last touch of a gifted painter, Colin West earns the most with the panache of the last fifteen minutes of Linoleum (2022). What was simmering for more than an hour embraces its full emotional potential. Life’s short says West, and the best way to live it is to accept the worth one manages to create. West ties all of the loose ends in a poignantly poetic, Darren Aronofsky-style conclusion. Yes, it’s emotionally draining, but the beauty of cinema is, really, that simple too – crafting an emotive story that won’t let go easily.