Brian Dennehy and the Gargantuan Mundane in Driveways (2019)

How the Pain of the Past Can be the Foundation for Friendship

It’s hard to know why some things stick. Throughout my adolescence and teenage years, there were a few figures that frequently appeared on the television screen and seemed to wait for me. Brian Dennehy was one of them. The memories are hazy, but he was there, a routine presence on screen and in the background when I’d come home from school and interrupt my mum to say hello. He was like an imagined neighbor.

Dennehy’s features were so jagged. With his white hair and square-like build, on which a button-down appeared fastened rather than draped, Dennehy became synonymous with the simplified past. In my mind, his look represented some long-gone imagined order—a visualization of something that didn’t materially exist even though it flourished as a psychological projection of conservatism. It didn’t surprise me when I later saw him as Sheriff Teasle in First Blood (1982). The blocky-ness of his being represented the square enforcement of rigid laws.

Of course, it is a fool’s errand to assume that the look of an actor fits some preconception of what a person is. Dennehy had a staggeringly successful career across film and the stage. Still, that kind of first judgement, that sense which coagulates and hardens into something fixed in memory, remains the frame that I peer through when I see him. I can’t think of Dennehy and not imagine him there, on the screen in my childhood home as an arbiter of rules, eager to enforce rather than welcome.

Back then, Dennehy looked like he was from a past time; now he’ll always be associated with another past.

It’s an oft-heard cry that the old kinds of male melodramas rooted in character portraits and smallish stakes are gone. Earlier this year, after I introduced a screening of The Conversation a viewer came up to me and asked, “they don’t make them like that anymore, do they?” Wrapped in the form of a question, it was really a lament. The movies of yesteryear are gone. That which once was is no longer and that loss is painful.

Mourning cinema’s various deaths is nothing new. Even if the industry has shifted substantially, work devoted to the small remains. This year’s Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn and written by Hanna Bos and Paul Thureen, is one of those movies that is long thought to have disappeared. The film’s three main characters exist in a space where the unexpected twists itself out and enraptures those slow to make judgements. Driveways is the type of film that solicits critical compliments like “calm,” “quiet,” “unassuming,” “humane,” and “gentle.” It is all of those things.

Such adjectives of praise are, if only implicitly, reflections of the film’s performances. Those performances fill the outline of a story that, as Justin Chang describes, is lined with “emotional nuance and [an] unshowy sense of place.” Driveways is a personal story one where the “emotional nuance” is drawn in the friendship between Cody (Lucas Jaye), a nine-year-old Asian American child visiting a small New York town, and Del (Brian Dennehy), an octogenarian vet. As Brian Dennehy told one reporter, Driveways is “about an unusual but necessary friendship, two people who need something and they find it in each other.” The “unusual but necessary” is at the root of the dendrogram of descriptors like humane and gentle.

Whatever is tiny can produce something mammoth. This is what often draws us into watching a performer. In the tiniest of gestures, we recognize the fragments of a thick personality. Those gestures, like subtly looking at the floor, are what give this newsletter its name.

The narrative is a simple one. Kathy’s sister April has died, leaving behind a house overflowing with objects, trinkets, and all the stuff of a private life. In the midst of the summer Kathy (Hong Chau), an Asian American single mother, brings her son Cody to April’s home to clean it out before putting it up for sale. When the two arrive, they are overwhelmed by the job—Kathy didn’t know April had accumulated so much. Simply moving between rooms is a challenge.

The script deftly skirts conventions. Driveways is less interested in insisting on that old idea that if people listen to one another and don’t judge then they may find out that people are, at their core, decent. Though a tale of personal morality may undergird the story, Driveways captures how the soft shadow of the past unravels in social interaction. The encounters between Kathy, Cody, and Del reveal how previous experience can calcify into something we might call the gargantuan mundane.

Something happened, it may not have been quite traumatic, but it left a wound that never goes away even as it also doesn’t quite destroy. In the immediate aftermath of this experience, perhaps the death of a loved one, perhaps the overturned expectations of a job, the pain hardens. After time, the pain is merely something that is carried. Its weight is not always felt, since one shoulders it every day. It is a fact of existence. A new thread in the livery of life.

At any moment, especially in conversation, the gargantuan mundane may emerge. When it does you are left on the ledge of speechlessness. The conversation doesn’t quite stop—no one has purposefully stoked the fires of debate or fury. Neither have they, in their carelessness, encroached on another’s humanity. Whatever has been said does not create such discomfort that dialogue must end. Nevertheless, there has been a disruption.

Perhaps you meet a friend for the first time in a year and don’t know that he went through an absolutely devastating divorce. You ask how his partner is doing, referring to them by name, without realizing that the fallout from the breakup was personally earth shattering. The past jostles its way in. It becomes another figure in the conversation, beckoned by you announcing the partner’s name. The ground shifts for all parties and your misstep incites a response that, perhaps out of a sense of propriety, may just be an evasion.

This is a moment of the gargantuan mundane. A mammoth sense is produced—it may feel like loss or fear or a peculiar kind of discomfort. Still, the presence of previous hurt is nothing entirely new to the wounded, since they are always holding those feelings. The presence is acknowledged by all but really only reckoned with by one.

Driveways is a film about the gargantuan mundane and what it looks like for that pain to be the basis for a new relationship. When we begin, we are shown scenes of small routine-like actions. These excerpts of life appear removed from any expository grounding. Cody plays on a tablet while Kathy drives to April’s house. Stopping briefly she smokes a cigarette. Del sits at a table, eating dinner in a low-lit room. He tenderly lifts the excess aluminum foil of his precooked meal out of the way, eventually dashing some salt before taken another bite.

The grounding here is in the characters living in the possibilities of tedium. They have pasts. They have desires. They have basic needs. This is small stuff.

Within each action is a history of emotion. After all, Kathy’s sister, April, has died. The two weren’t particularly close. Different life plans, different attitudes, and a 12-year gap in age meant that they couldn’t build either the bridge of friendship or the community of sisterhood. Still, Kathy must now clean up the remnants.

Summer is here. The sun coats the land like lacquer. Its light pierces and steals energy as much as it bathes the little New York town in shimmering beauty. If anyone’s inner life is dark, the outside looks otherwise. The sun shines with a brightness that might appear vibrant and life giving to some. Others would be shrouded in the wrenching isolation marked by the difference between the interior and the world around them. There are no cloudy days in Driveways, yet Kathy must grieve.

Life is filled with difficulties: here the need to clean out a house is layered over the pain and guilt of losing a sister you didn’t really know.

Next door is Del. He’s a Korean War vet and he wears a hat honoring that experience. Del spends most of his days outside on the porch reading and existing.  He has a past, as anyone does. His hat signifies that past, but it doesn’t augur some explicitly racist confrontation with the recently arrived family.*

Whatever his thoughts are we are not sure. Dennehy’s posture suggests what it is to sit and think about the simple truth that all those years, all that life, somehow just dissipated. Between the intervals of the immediate present, he appears to turn over the undulating possibilities and the could-have-beens of his life. One lives and one regrets. That is how it goes. We will learn that Del’s wife, Vera, recently passed away. This is the beginning. This is the exposition.

About a third of the way through the film Cody runs away from some rambunctious young boys whose idea of a friendly afternoon is a bit too much. Roughhousing is common to them but foreign to Cody and they try to wrestle with him. Cody is uncomfortable with that kind of connection, vomits out of anxiety and, carrying the shame of a failed social experience, escapes. He arrives back at his aunt’s. Kathy is away and Del watches over him.

Watch the Scene Here:

The two hang out. They eat sandwiches. And then, they sit on the porch together, each read a newspaper. This is a moment of shared media from an earlier age. The old media is tactile. Smudgy. Fragrant. Textured that can be felt in the saw-toothed edges and impressed bumps on the fringes of the paper.

The media matters here. Throughout the film Cody has been transfixed by his tablet. Now the device sits next to him. It is within sight but untouched. For Dennehy, this experience likely held some personal resonance. Nearly a decade ago he told an audience that he was “not a Kindle owner…[people] get furious when they say ‘why do you buy all these books, all you have to do is give somebody a gift card or something’ [to buy an e-book] I say ‘you don’t understand it’s a book, it’s something you can hold.” That ability to hold tethers the child and adult together. Del doesn’t question, prod or poke Cody. The two just sit there with something to touch. Something to read. The paper (and soon a glossy magazine) is something to hold and it might take hold of Cody. For Del this a tradition. For Cody it’s an exploration.

Kathy returns to pick up Cody, which sets up the moment of the gargantuan mundane. The three begin to chat. We see Cody laying on a pillow reading the funny pages. Del is behind him in a wicker chair. His legs are crossed. Tan socks poke out above worn white sneakers; Del is a man dressed in the casual costume of a senior. What stands out most is the ring on his drooping hand.

Kathy explains that she was away working on medical transcriptions. That is her job. Something that is neither a smile nor a grimace, yet reminiscent of both, crosses Dennehy’s face as he anchors the shot, settled in the background. With little hesitation and a bit of gruffness, he scrunches his eyes and nose together. Del responds “I don’t know what that is,” referring to medical transcription. There is a tempered airiness to his voice though his cadence is curt.

The conversation here is about the whirl of developing relationships. The camera doesn’t cut much to Kathy, preferring to focus on Del and Cody. When she is the focus, Kathy explains that she enjoys her job since she gets to “learn all the medical jargon,” which will help her become a nurse, Dennehy coos alittle, creating a sense of friendliness outside of the shot. He states with elderly approval “good for you.” It is the kind of approval that verges on formality.

Somewhat embarrassed and fearful she might be seen as unappreciative, Kathy states that she is going to go apologise to grandmother of the two boys for Cody’s disappearance. Eventually the camera cuts to a close up of Dennehy whose fingers grasp the paper, seemingly more out of the feel of it than anything else. Kathy thanks Del, worried that watching Cody might be a burden. Dennehy’s voice is as assuring as his words. “Oh no it’s a pleasure having him around. He’s good company” he says, with the briefest of nods, as if to signal to Kathy “it’s ok take some time.” What happens next illustrates the blossoming of the “unusual friendship” and what is at its foundation.  

Cody and Del read. There is a brief shot of a bowl of popcorn with Del’s wrinkled white hand reaching in, followed by Cody’s. This is shared food—the food of movies. They munch as they read, digesting the snack as they digest the possibilities of an older medium. We’re not shown what Cody is reading at first. Dennehy looks down at the paper. We see him lick his fingers, a signifier of a certain age, as he flips the pages. Lucas Jaye appears to hold a magazine closer to eye level and scans the page. After almost twenty seconds of eating and reading and reading and eating Cody asks: “Who’s Vera?”

Del turns as if startled. The question is like a needle that has pricked him in the side of the abdomen. There it is. The gargantuan mundane has joined the conversation.

The sounds of eating and reading are gone. With a great suck of oxygen that is as much about getting a popcorn kernel out of a tooth as it is a kind of gasp, Dennehy responds. He utters, “my wife.”

We may have seen an interaction like this on screen before but rarely with such a focus on the way quiet can take shape in the air. After those two words, left in the present (even though Vera is gone she is still Del’s wife) Dennehy continues to chew and his tongue slips out to lick his lips. He looks down. He looks away. We watch Del as we hear Cody ask the follow up: “Is she dead?”

It is clear now that Del’s chewing is not about the food. It is a way to manage the intricate emotions that have arrived, like chugging a glass of water to avoid bursting into tears. Del lets out a bit of a air through his closed mouth before answering with cold assurance, “yep.” This is just a fact. It is true. Vera is dead.  Her death signals more than the loss of a partner, it highlights the passing of time.  

Dennehy’s eyes close ever so slightly. He looks off in the distance (still chewing) and then turns down to the paper again. There is a cut back to Cody whose eyes reflect brief imaginative empathy. The space between the two is filled with the presence of the past. The atmosphere is different with it there. There is no tension. Just the truth of the matter which, can only be understood by Del, even if acknowledged by Cody. No one can run from it and no one wants to.

Fifteen seconds pass as the two intermittently look at one another. Where can the conversation go? It doesn’t need to end. However, at this moment, that appears to be what is best for both. Unable to exit with wonderous grace, Del ejects in the only way he can. He suggests to Cody that it is getting late. Addressing his young friend as “pal,” he asks, “aren’t you thinking about checking in with your mom?” Cody, with the poise of someone much older, nods. He understands what has happened. He understands that the gargantuan mundane has arrived. He replies “yea, probably.”

Finally, after all this time we see, in a close-up, what Cody has been reading. It is a copy of National Geographic’s “Guide to National Parks.” The spine is creased. There, in the rectangular white box, we understand where Cody’s question came from: the issue is addressed to Vera Harris in Evansdale, NY. The glossy mag that opened up a traveling imagination for so many young kids of a certain class rests beside the popcorn, now an immobile trace of previous life.

As though the object had a kind of vibrancy that needed to be acknowledged the film cuts back to Del. His chewing is less pronounced. Now that Cody is leaving there is no more need to work through the past by gnashing his teeth.

The popcorn, which was previously a symbol of burgeoning friendship, is something else now. There is no simple escape. One cannot simply abolish a thought from their mind. The joys of the past are filled with present pains. Dennehy begins to squint again. The moment is gone. Del will miss Cody’s company. They are becoming friends, after all. But he registers the need for that absence.

Driveways is a gorgeous film, in large part, because of these revelations of performance. They accrue in scene after scene and they are, as the critics have noted, quiet. They are calm. Underneath that calm, in that smallness, are entire lives filled with change, loss, love, and difficulty. That difficulty is a part of life and it might not swallow Del up--it might rarely swallow any of us up. For if it did, then we’d have to stop doing that very thing. We’d have to give up on living.

What Dennehy and Lucas Jaye show is that when the aching wounds of yesteryear bring themselves into the light, they are best acknowledged even if such acknowledgement burns. Time moves through us all, but whatever is in the unexpected, whatever comes into the driveway, whatever choices we make, there will likely be missteps and regrets just as there will be reckonings and relationships. To deny the changes in those choices, to let something like regret take over, is as much of a sin as to never greet all those complicated experiences in the first place.

Respite might not be found in reading. It certainly won’t be embraced in any kind of avoidance. But it might make itself known in the new relationships we forge: those between people who need something and find it in one another.

* When Kathy and Del first meet there is some misunderstanding and the possibility of racial conflict is signaled but never fulfilled; the gargantuan mundane is pointed to but it does not unfurl.