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Pain, tragedy overwhelm ‘Five Nights in Maine’

David Oyelowo butts heads with Dianne Wiest in "Five Nights in Maine." | FilmRise

The late Jim Morrison once famously intoned: “People fear death even more than pain. It’s strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death.”

For the two central characters in Maris Curran’s “Five Nights in Maine,” life truly is more agonizing than death.

Starring David Oyelowo (“Selma,” “The Butler”) as a recent widower and Dianne Wiest as his stoic mother-in-law, “Five Nights” serves up a hefty dose of pain at every turn and on so many levels there is no escaping the torment.

Following the sudden death of his wife, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg), in a car accident, Sherwin (Oyelowo) retreats to his couch and his whiskey bottle and cigarettes — shutting out the world, washing the dishes and blankly gazing at the urn containing his wife’s ashes. Hardly a word is spoken in the first quarter of the film. (And even then, only brief sentences or phrases.) He decides to take up an offer from his mother-in-law to visit her in Maine (though it’s not clear why). Their relationship, we soon learn, is beyond strained.

Sherwin arrives at her picture-perfect New England farm house where he is welcomed, but not welcome. The house resides in what appears to be an all-white county where he encounters anti-African-American stares (and at one point gunshot warnings). The message is clear: He is not welcome in Maine, either.

Lucinda (Dianne Wiest, in a gripping performance) and Sherwin spend much of the time exchanging steely gazes. Though never verbalized, it’s clear she resents the fact that her white daughter married a black man, but neither she nor her son-in-law have the strength to deal with it. You see, Lucinda is literally out of strength, ravaged by terminal cancer. Her relationship (or lack thereof) with Sherwin is pained, and painful to watch.

Curran employs extremely tight close-ups throughout the film, and after awhile, you’re not quite sure why. Oyelowo conveys much of his emotion through glances and facial expressions in a strong and controlled portrayal of a man dealing with all-encompassing sorrow. But Curran’s script never digs deep enough. The dialogue is minimalistic, and most of it courtesy of Lucinda’s cruel taunts that cut like a knife. But even those moments are never fully explored.

We get little insight into Sherwin and Fiona’s marriage, but we know from a few scant flashbacks it was not the marital bliss of the film’s opening shots. The film never preaches about racism, but it’s unclear why the three of them — mom, daughter and son-in-law — never had it out once and for all. So much silent anger, silent pain.

From Lucinda’s devoted caretaker, Ann (Rosie Perez, who has a bit more dialogue than most in the film), we learn Fiona visited her mother just before the accident, and it was not a happy encounter. And then her child was gone. And therein lies the crux of Lucinda’s silent rage, a rage more horrific than the cancer that is taking her life. Lucinda’s eventual catharsis speaks volumes. Literally.

★★

Loveless Entertainment presents a film written and directed by Maris Curran. Running time: 84 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday On-Demand.