The Death & Life of John F. Donovan ★★½

Xavier Dolan Ranked
2018 Ranked

Any shift in a directors repertoire can come as quite a shock. Whether it’s a change in language or a change in the country of production or a change in themes or style; something like that can frighten both fans and skeptics alike. So when Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan went through something of a production hell with actors getting completely cut from the final film and the premiere garnering almost solely negative reviews, it safe to say many fans were left in the dark in a huge way. What was this elusive project Dolan was working on? Perhaps it is a bit of a stigma surrounding the “infamous enfant terrible” but the drama he usually put in his own films now seemed to have taken on a life of its own.

But, as it turns out, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is Dolan through and through. Both the good and the bad of his unique style of filmmaking can be found here. Needle drops, melodrama, the struggle with one's sexuality and the rough bond between a son and his mother; it’s all there and it’s all at least as exciting as you might’ve hoped for. And still… Donovan feels flat in comparison to any of Dolan’s other works. While he squeezes all the talent from his actors - with Susan Sarandon being the absolute highlight as the American version of Anne Dorval - there’s something lacking in the story Dolan has put together. At once he tells a lot, seemingly exposing all the trauma he hadn’t put out there before, and at the same time, the story doesn’t appear to be closed off as tightly as it could be.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the fault lies and it’s probably a mixture of different issues coming together at the wrong time in the wrong places, but signs tell us that the story itself may have been overstuffed from the moment Dolan began production on it. In a mere two hours of film, he tries to tell of a famous actor's struggle coming out as a homosexual, how he deals with complicated family relations and his secret correspondence with an 11-year old boy on the other side of the planet who in turn has to deal with similar issues. The story is stacked with characters and plot points to the point where there’s barely enough breathing room left to get to the core of what Dolan is really trying to tell here. Some characters flash by so fast, it’s impossible to understand what their connection was to the main plot and even the leading men and the center of this, Jacob Tremblay and Kit Harington as the titular Donovan, aren’t given the space to fully flesh out their characters. They arrive at a point where they become the kind of annoying, screaming, confused personalities that Dolan is often blamed for creating in his films. And I’m pretty sure that’s not what he intended to do…

When Dolan posted on Instagram that he had decided to cut Jessica Chastain’s part out of the picture, he also confessed that the original cut was roughly four hours long. The final product is half of that. Chances are that four-hour cut contained much more of the soul of the story than in the final cut. In all likelihood Dolan was forced to trim down the film to a “reasonable size” to make it easier to sell but pushing a four-hour story into a two-hour runtime is bound to take away vital parts of the story. Here, it seems as most of the stuff that’s left is surface-level; the screams, the sobs, the monologues, the music. The symphony is there but music isn’t just the notes, it’s the space between the notes, the moments that let us reflect on what’s happening; and since there’s so much going on in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan we need quite a lot of time to let it all sink in and we’re simply not given that time. Here’s to hoping Dolan is given the freedom to release a fuller cut, or perhaps a film divided into two parts because as it is now, it’s nearly too much of a mess to get a grasp on anything.

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