The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005) -Review

Note: This is an old review that I am recycling, originally written in 2017. My opinion on the film (as with film in general) has massively changed since, but I still quite like this review, so I thought it was worth sharing again.

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The Squid and the Whale is a film that feels almost like an 80 minute emotional assault, in all of the ways that you would want a film to. It’s the dramatic tension between the characters that is instantly hooking. The entire film feels  like a game of tennis, which is ironic seeing as that is the sport that all of the characters participate in at some point in the film. The opening scene probably expresses this idea in the most upfront way, with the family playing tennis themselves. Walt and Bernard vs Frank and Joan, the net acting as a wall stopping them from really clashing. They hit the ball back and forth, until Bernard remarks to Walt that he should hit the ball at his mothers back hand, as it is weaker. The idea of specifically aiming for a weakness, even if it is ‘just a game’ (as Walt says), still says a lot about the characters. 

The moment that always sticks out to me is the ending, which may be my favourite ending of this century so far. As soon as Lou Reed’s Street Hassle starts to play, the cello gently screaming out and hitting the audience in the gut with its raw feeling, it’s impossible not to have shivers all over your body, and it was as I started to tear up, the credits rolled and I sighed, realising how truly special this film is for my fourth time. It’s the performance from Jesse Eisenberg, the almost documentary-like cinematography and Lou Reed’s brilliant song that make this moment one of the most emotional and most memorable that I have ever seen. 

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One aspect of the film that I certainly deem note-worthy is the characters and their actions. The like-ability of the characters is something that Baumbach really plays around with. I find his confidence incredible, with the way that he gives all of the characters unlikeable moments, but he realises that they are fleshed out and human enough for the audience to simply understand their actions. My favourite example of this is a moment that comes towards the end of the film, when the entire family finally clashes and the emotion is let out. Bernard says to Joan that if he had tried a little harder, he thinks he could have saved the marriage, and then he asks if they could try one more time to fix things, and it’s her almost instant outburst of laughter that really solidifies Baumbach’s confidence in his characters and his confidence in the actors.

I find it interesting how the film is titled after what is seemingly insignificant, and doesn’t seem to represent the film, The Squid and the Whale. Of course, the title refers to the closing moments of the film, wherein Walt’s character arc is fulfilled by him confronting his fears and coming to realise how wrong he has been throughout the film, but I think that it represents more than that. For one, if you see the actual part of the exhibit that The Squid and the Whale is, you’ll know that it almost looks like strangulation, the squid wrapping its tentacles around the Whale, and I find that this represents how the characters feel in the film. They feel as if they’re being strangled, as if they’re suffocating, the family tension is simply dragging them down, which leads to the divorce in the first place. It could also be a representation of the way that the family seems to be split into two parts, Walt and Bernard being one and Joan and Frank being the other. The way that Bernard seems to be overbearing, or in a way suffocating towards his family, pressuring them, especially Walt to be the same as he is. It could also represent the way that the two are fighting, whether it is Bernard Vs Joan or Walt vs Frank, they all have their tension involved at times and this feels strangulating too. 

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The most noticeable emotion throughout the film is anger, with the way that all of the characters seem to be angry with each other at one given point, but never truly express it. Walt seems to be the one who is the most annoyed in the film, annoyed with himself, his mother, his brother, his girlfriend and eventually his dad (when we get to the end of the film). It’s all of his pent up anger that I would say leads to the finale of the film, when he finally starts to cry in front of his dad, he lets that anger and frustration out, and he stands up to his dad, telling him that he won’t go and see him for a little while. He then does something for the first time in the film, he goes against what his father has told him to do, and leaves (shortly after being asked to stay for the day, as Bernard says he ‘needs the company’). 

One thing that I found very interesting was an interview with Jeff Daniels, who gives potentially the greatest performance in the film playing Bernard, the self obsessed and narcissistic father. In the interview, he stated that “The Squid and the Whale was the film that saved my film career.”, and that it came after a few failures in a row, and just when it seemed as if Daniels’ acting career may be over, director Baumbach went to him and cast him to play Bernard. I find it rather ironic that the best actor in the film was the one who was struggling the most to find any work at the time, and I’m sure that he’s as thankful as I am for the fact that he was cast in this film.

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Another thing that I find to be unique to this film is the way that it really wears it’s time setting as much as it can. From the use of Pink Floyd’s Hey You to the clothes and cars in the film, the film doesn’t throw it in your face with a time stamp every few minutes but instead simply allows the audience to figure it out, and though it doesn’t add all too much to the story beyond some context and reasoning for certain things to be included, it makes the film feel more personal in a strange way.

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The film is one that I find myself heavily relating to, especially in the character of Walt. Walt is a character who seems to be entirely lost in what he wants. He thinks that he can do better than his girlfriend, he thinks that he ‘could have wrote’ Pink Floyd’s ‘Hey You’, he feels that his fathers opinion is far more important than finding out for himself. It’s the admiration for his father that I would say I used to share. When I was younger, my dad meant the world to me, even after my parents divorced, eventually (much like Walt) I came to realise that in reality, it was my mum who was always there when my dad wasn’t, which was very often, and that he wasn’t that great at all. It’s a tough thing to get over, almost like if you were to meet your hero only to find out that they weren’t who you thought, but at the same time I feel it’s something that many people have gone or will go through. I suppose in a way I also relate to Walt’s pretentiousness, as all of you reading this will know (unless this is the first thing you’ve read by me) I’m really pretentious for a fourteen year old kid, and I’m still trying to figure out if that’s a good thing, or if it’s as negative as I tell myself. 

Either way, Noah Baumbach’s confident film blossoms whilst the characters involved seem to gradually deteriorate, due to excellent performances and sharp, incredibly witty script. It’s a film I find myself rewatching very often, and I’m sure it’s a film that I will always hold a spot in my heart for, as long as when you say ‘heart’, you’re referring to my favourite films list.

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