What a magnificent presence is J.K. Simmons.
What an authentic, weathered, world-weary face he has.
What a tremendous gift he has for conveying so much with such little dialogue in the stark and unsettling “I’m Not Here,” which often feels like a filmed stage work, what with nearly every scene taking place indoors, usually with just two or three characters.
Writer-director Michelle Schumacher (who is married to Simmons) starts the story near the end and then flashes back to the pivotal moments in one man’s life, from his troubled childhood in the 1960s to his volatile marriage in the 1980s to his present condition — disheveled, half-dressed, soaked in booze, wallowing in misery and considering suicide as he stumbles about in a filthy, unkempt home where the power will be turned off at midnight because he’s behind on the bills.
J.K. Simmons, looking like a 19th century president or a biblical figure with his long, thick beard, plays Steve, who lets the answering machine pick up calls from his mother and a long-ago friend on his 60th birthday, as he swigs booze and falls into a near-hallucinatory state peppered with hazy, perhaps not altogether reliable memories.
“I’m not here,” is the message on the machine. We get the sense Steve hasn’t changed that message in three decades. We also get the sense that even though of course he IS here, he has long ago checked out.
Every item in the house, every sound Steve hears, triggers a memory of the past. He sees a toy car and is reminded of the toys in his son’s bedroom. He looks in the bathroom mirror and sees a reflection of himself some 30 years earlier, looking into that same mirror.
How did he wind up here? Can he forgive himself for long-ago transgressions?
When little Stevie (Iain Armitage of “Young Sheldon”) is just 6 years old, his mother (Mandy Moore) reaches the breaking point with his father (Max Greenfield), who comes home drunk nearly every night and can’t hold a job. The poor kid is so desperate to connect with his charming but deeply troubled father, he secretly takes a big gulp of his dad’s drink in the kitchen one day.
Cut to the 1980s (“I Melt With You” by Modern English on the soundtrack), when the 25ish Steve (played by Sebastian Stan, Bucky Barnes in the “Avengers” movies) meets the beautiful and smart Karen (Maika Monroe) and instantly falls for her.
Like his father, Steve has charisma to spare. Like his father, Steve has trouble holding down a job but never has any trouble hanging onto a drink.
Steve and Karen have a son. We can see history repeating itself, and we can begin to understand why 60-year-old Steve is alone and broken and filled with remorse.
Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of the road almost taken — the road in which Steve gives up drinking, makes something of himself, reconnects with Karen and joins her in raising their young son Trevor.
But we see where Steve is at 60, so we know that’s not how things worked out. In fact, it appears as if life took a particularly dark turn on a sunny day — a turn so dark there was no going back.
In one of the 1980s scenes, “Words” by Missing Persons is playing in the background.
What are words for
When no one listens
What are words for
When no one listens, it’s no use talking at all
By the time Steve finds himself alone in a dark and empty house, cradling a gun, it’s devastatingly clear he long ago decided there was no use talking at all.
‘I’m Not Here’
Gravitas Ventures presents a film directed by Michelle Schumacher and written by Schumacher and Tony Cummings. No MPAA rating. Running time: 81 minutes. Now showing at Facets Cinematheque.