By: Trevor Chartrand
In the delightfully surreal Death of a Ladies’ Man, director Matt Bissonette addresses some hard-hitting subjects in a mature (yet somehow silly) way. This darkly funny film was heavily influenced and inspired by the work of Leonard Cohen, and the late artist’s presence in the film will not go unnoticed. The film explores themes and ideas present in Cohen’s music, and features a soundtrack that includes plenty of Cohen songs.
The film tells the story of alcoholic adulterer Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne), who finds himself in a rut at the end of his second marriage – and what could be the end of his life. With a terminal brain cancer diagnosis, his mind begins to impress bizarre hallucinations upon him, ranging in strangeness from a tiger-faced waitress to titan-sized geese that breathe fire on an unsuspecting city skyline. Determined to reconcile the mistakes he has made, O’Shea focuses on reconnecting with his family: reaching out to his hockey player son Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon), his heroin-addicted daughter Linda (Carolina Bartczak), and his dead father (Brian Gleeson), who appears frequently among his hallucinations.
O’Shea also spends a great deal of time writing ‘that book he’s always talked about,’ a memoir on life and love, or a search for answers of sorts. In the end, O’Shea discovers beauty and meaning in his life, having kicked his addictions and vices. Ironically though (and this is the greatest joke of the film), it’s the endlessly random nature of the world that he ultimately succumbs to, losing his life moments after discovering meaning and purpose in it.
In the lead role, Byrne navigates the film with a natural humility and humbleness, playing a man who wears a life of regrets in every step he takes. His matter-of-fact approach adds humor to the more bizarre situations, often shrugging his shoulders as his cancerous brain takes him more and more out of touch with reality.
Supporting Byrne is his cast of strung out family members, who all perform their roles with precision and wit. The most humorous and engaging performance though is Gleeson as Shea’s disinterested Irish father, who casually returns from the grave just to have a chat now and then. His chemistry with Byrne is so natural and so strong – the two play their every interaction straight as if everything is normal, lending comedy to the absurdity of the situation.
The execution of the more surreal elements of the film are handled quite masterfully. The hallucination sequences first come across as a pretentious flourish or a metaphor that’s maybe trying too hard. But, patient viewers will soon discover the film is actually quite grounded despite its surreal world, once O’Shea acknowledges that he’s seeing things – there’s an awareness there that opens up the character and makes him instantly more accessible to an audience. Once he admits to us how absurd his visions are, he places himself in a much more relatable headspace to the viewer.
On the surface, Death of a Ladies’ Man is a dark drama that focuses on addiction, death, and the existential crisis of living in general. But the film has an incredibly unique style that makes the darker material more approachable and easy to digest. There’s something here for everyone – musical numbers and dance sequences, romantic drama and family tension, and even elements of a fantasy world inside our protagonists’ head. Most importantly though, the film’s comedic nature and stylized visuals create a strangely optimistic film about some truly depressing themes and ideas. The film slowly ascends, ending on a high note with a sense of hope and possibility in an otherwise dank and dour world.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor