TIFF 2013 REVIEW: 'Third Person'


Multi-narrative films are one of those special categories of movie that are sporadically produced and even more sporadically successful. Like a found-footage movie, a multi-narrative picture imposes a structure on the film that demands justification – we need a compelling reason to follow three or four separate strands of a parallel story. All too often, movies like this fail to satisfy, as the story strands are not fully developed or connected.

Writer-director Paul Haggis, no stranger to this type of cinema (refer to his 2004 Oscar darling Crash), employs the multi-narrative structure again in his new film Third Person, a complex relationship drama with an all-star cast. While the format Haggis has chosen has its pitfalls, Third Person ultimately comes together as a thought-provoking and daring mystery that demands a second viewing.

We begin by following a wide array of characters: Liam Neeson appears as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist struggling with writer’s block, and Olivia Wilde portrays the aspiring writer having an affair with him. Meanwhile, Mila Kunis plays a woman living in New York, bouncing between jobs and fighting to gain partial custody of her son.

In a separate thread set in Italy, Adrien Brody appears as a shady businessman who gets caught up in a quest to liberate a woman’s daughter from a human trafficker. Elsewhere, there’s a successful artist played by James Franco, an emotionally haunted lawyer portrayed by Maria Bello, and a frustrated wife played by Kim Basinger.

Third Person takes its time establishing the connections between all these disparate people. But as the pieces finally fall into place, most viewers will be hard-pressed not to be drawn even further into the film. Like an intricate mystery novel, the film surges towards a final reveal, and Haggis smartly doesn’t give away too much, leaving the viewer to do a surprising amount of thinking to decode all the layers of the story.

The linchpin of the film is the story of Michael (Neeson) and Anna (Wilde), which explores their tumultuous romance - a series of encounters that twist and turn around some delightfully playful dialogue. Michael desperately wants to pour his experience with Anna into his novel, but even though this approach brought his success in the past, he’s afraid of harming the people he loves.

Among other things, Michael’s story develops into a commentary on the process of writing, and naturally, we begin to question how much of himself Haggis is revealing. Together, the three narratives deal with the nature of love, the intangibility of trust, and the power of honesty – heavy topics, and certainly not for audiences looking for a lighthearted night at the movies.

The major themes of Third Person are enhanced by a handful of metaphysical elements that force us to re-examine what we know about the characters. Objects and strands of dialogue seem to cross between narratives, complicating the lives of the characters. In trying to unlock the puzzle of the film, I considered options like time travel, flash-forwards, and even magic realism as possible explanations for what we see in the film – but I won’t spoil the real answer for you.

Haggis evidently had no trouble attracting a star-studded cast for the film. It’s good to see Neeson in a gentler role after his recent run as a fan-favourite badass in films like The Grey, Taken and Clash of the Titans. And Olivia Wilde puts in one of her best performances as Anna – a woman who baffles both Michael and the audience until her climactic scene late in the film. Kunis is another standout performer: as the unstable Julia, she becomes an intriguing complement to Michael once we learn how they are connected.

And so we come back to the crucial question about Third Person: does the film justify its use of the multi-narrative format? I’m willing to bet that viewers will find the film more satisfying than Haggis’ previous use of multi-narrative in Crash – if only because Haggis uses it to tell a simpler story, something less sweeping and politicized than the racism covered in his 2004 film.

Even so, Third Person is bound to be a hotly debated film. By exploring topics like love and trust in such an open-ended way, we’re left to do more work than usual to understand the film.  Maybe that’s the point: as a third party to the events on the screen, the ultimate reward is to learn more about ourselves. Third Person gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

Third Person just had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, so if you’ve had a chance to see it there, let me know what you thought! Otherwise, what do you think about multi-narrative movies? Are they a bold experiment, or an overblown gimmick? Join the discussion in the comments section below.

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