There appears to be this new trend going on in movies right now: films where Christopher Walken plays the sane, rational voice of reason while everyone else goes batshit-crazy around him. In Seven Psychopaths, he shockingly played the least psychotic of the bunch—a sage, sensible old man who attempts to go on living after his wife, the love of his life, passes on. He plays the exact same character in A Late Quartet, albeit a character who isn't dodging gunfire and murderous characters. And yet, I found the scenario of Seven Psychopaths to be more palpable than the one he's stuck in here.
Walken plays Peter, a cellist who is the widowed and eldest member of the Fugue String Quartet, a world-renowned, New York-based classical music ensemble approaching its 25th anniversary. Unfortunately, Peter wonders if he'll make it to this landmark once he learns he's in the early stages of Parkinson's disease. Things start to unravel when he announces his illness to the rest of the quartet. Second-chair violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes this as an opportunity to declare that he and Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the quartet's first-chair violinist and fanatical leader, should alternate the lead position. When Robert urges Daniel to stop being so anal and embrace his passion, he takes this as a cue to start a romance with Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a young, bitter, aspiring violinist. The twist? She's Robert's daughter with Juliette (Catherine Keener), the quartet's emotionally torn violist, who is forced to make tough decisions once her husband makes a gravely bad call.
A rigid, silent tension looms throughout Quartet, which makes you wish it were more than the melodramatic chamber piece it turns out to be. To be sure, co-writer and director Yaron Zilberman and veteran cinematographer Frederick Elmes take advantage of the wintry surroundings, practically enveloping these characters in their own distant, isolated chilliness whenever they're not a unit. And there is something intriguing about seeing a dignified string quartet fall apart when its oldest, strongest member talks about quitting—quietly imploding even when they're working their asses off rehearsing ambitious compositions like Beethoven's Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor (complete with seven movements to be played without a break!).
However, the unconvincing, histrionic script makes all of this seem more contrived than controlled. For a movie about smart, sophisticated folk, starring actors I would gladly see in anything, these people do pull off some simple-minded, soap-operaish shit.
This article appeared in print with the headline "White men in winter."