There comes a point in your moviegoing life where you look at the screen and then you look at the world and you ask, “What is going on?’’ You want the movies to show you the chaos and mess and risk and failure that are normal for a lot of us. Generally, the movies hide all of that.
Sometimes you don’t want to escape. You want to connect with a movie that’s really about something, to listen to a filmmaker talk things out, to watch him amp everyday life without calling attention to his turning up the sound.
You want to see a guy contemplate getting dressed; open a box of Nikes, then put it away; maybe get stoned; head to a friend’s dinner party, then go out to a Nottingham club where he’ll meet another guy, take him home, and spend the next day and a half getting to know him so well that, come Sunday, he’s in love. You want to see intimacy and sex, yes. But you want to experience the way intimacy compounds sex until it begins to sprout feelings. What you want is “Weekend,’’ one of the truest, most beautiful movies ever made about two strangers.
The writer, director, and editor Andrew Haigh uses a realism that extends entirely from the point of view of Russell (Tom Cullen), who’s kind-eyed and openly gay but conservatively so. He doesn’t discuss his relationships. When he makes an early exit from that dinner party and heads to the nightclub where he finds himself drawn to a little guy in a small, dark T-shirt, he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going. His sense of privacy amounts to gentlemanly decorum. But it’s compromised and challenged the moment the man the T-shirt was wearing, Glen (Chris New), awakes the morning after and asks Russell to speak into his tape recorder about the night before. It’s for some willfully provocative art project - the type of stunt we’ll all be talking about when Steve McQueen’s sex-addiction drama “Shame,’’ with Michael Fassbender, opens later this year.
Haigh is more interested in quiet emotional surprise than erotic shock. Glen expects Russell to be lewd. He’s full of sweetness, instead. “I thought you were out of my league,’’ Russell says, and Glen’s face goes blank. Haigh has paired two opposites. Glen takes chances (he’s days away from art school in Portland, Ore.). Russell, it seems, takes none (he works as a swimming pool lifeguard). Glen instigates and foments. Russell retreats. The movie explores the gray area between their differences. They have a lot of help. Saturday night, these two drink and do a lot of drugs - innovatively, it must be said. Neither is as wasted as he probably should be, but the idea is that all the cocaine and alcohol allows each man to be less inhibited about who he really is.
The achievement of both the acting and its direction is that neither man remains a stranger to us. Cullen and New are London stage actors, and their transparency makes their emotional achievement easy to take for granted. But these are two intelligent, startlingly subtle performances.
People have said that part of the reason “Weekend’’ works is that it’s not about a gay relationship, per se, but just about relationships. Yes, but mostly no. Men and women talk, as they have since the dawn of the movies, about the particulars of being men and women. But at a bar we overhear Glen tell someone that the culture has been set up to make heterosexuality the dominant norm, which more or less means that the only way to understand other relationships is by determining who’s the man, who’s the woman, or who’s Seth Rogen.
Haigh has seen (and edited) a lot of films, and this one, consciously and amazingly, borrows from romance plots right down to the beat-the-clock finale. “Weekend’’ dramatizes a conversation the movies never have: two homosexual men debating each other over what kind of gay to be, working out their emotional damage politically. Is marriage a human right or a compromise? Is Russell’s decorum actually just a form of shame? Is Glen’s lasciviousness?
This is a story specifically about the gay predicament of love in a straight culture. It’s about the harmonization of Glen’s radicalism (he’s the kid who comes out on Mother’s Day) and Russell’s neutrality, how exposure to one changes the other. It’s possible to leave this movie astounded that two men can have these conversations and still want to hold each other. But Russell and Glen’s emotional nudity is their balm and bond. The excitement is that you sense a director trying a rare expansion of the conversation the movies can have about love and sex and life. We have to talk about last night in order to figure out how we’d like to spend tomorrow.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.