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I'm Not Here

A still from "I'm Not Here," starring J.K. Simmons. The film opens at The Roxy Theater March 8.

It must be great fun — or at least a nice change of pace — to make a movie where your lead actor has no lines, no wardrobe aside from a puke-colored bathrobe and simply needs to be lit by a single spot as he wanders around a dark house.

J.K. Simmons embodies this character — Steve Harrison — completely, from the opening shot of him sobbing with a gun to his head, to his morning stumble to the bathroom, so hungover he has to sit to pee.

There are long shots of the despondent, alcoholic Steve staring into the mirror, his gaunt face contorted in confusion and pain. He knows how he got here, but the trigger of his 60th birthday (and news of a death from his past) brings a wave of memories to fill the audience in.

These are seen in arty, sun-gauzed flashbacks featuring Sebastian Stan as the young adult Steve, in college and married, starting and failing to keep a career going due to his alcoholism.

More affecting — or maybe just better acted — are the childhood flashbacks, to him as “Little Stevie” in the 1960s, enduring divorce and parents who struggle to provide consistency in love and support. These feature the also (nearly) silent Iain Armitage, Mandy Moore as his mother and Max Greenfield as his hereditarily alcoholic father.

Through these flashbacks we learn Steve’s life was pretty much just one horror after another, including alcoholism, suicides, divorce and infidelity. There’s a final horror I won’t reveal here, but watch for a resonant detail: the bed Simmons sleeps on in the beginning of the film.

Old Steve, wandering around his house looking for food, more vodka and batteries for the remote, comes to these flashbacks through a series of devices. Sometimes it’s the plastic cup on his bathroom counter that reminds him of brushing his teeth as a child, or the takeout container of molding spaghetti that brings a memory of his drunken father bursting in on a sad Christmas Eve dinner.

Most commonly used though, is his answering machine, one of a few anachronistic items in Steve’s house that haven’t been touched since that certain final horror in the 1990s.

This style of exposition can make the movie feel a bit like a video game with a silent protagonist who gets plot points fed to them from every non-player character they run into.

The dialogue can swing wildly from far too explanatory to strangely unnecessary, like a flashback with Steve’s wife Karen (played by Maika Monroe) noting blandly, “It seems like just yesterday we were changing his diapers,” as their son plays next to them. It’s mainly noticeable due to the dearth of lines.

But the movie makes its money on the details — from Simmons’ incredibly expressive face to younger Steve’s resourceful hiding spots for bottles (the toilet, his son’s toy chest). One of the most affecting scenes has Little Stevie using jelly beans to pick which parent he will live with after the divorce.

The film premiered in 2017 at the Raindance Film Festival and is directed by Michelle Schumacher, who has been married to Simmons since 1996. It’s curious that this film took so long to make it to wide release — it’s definitely not an easy movie, but by independent drama standards, it’s not some wild card.

But regardless of the movie’s faults, it’s clear that it was an imperative story for Schumacher and Simmons to tell. And from that, the passion, and the final scene’s ray of hope, shine through.

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Arts and entertainment

arts reporter for the Missoulian.