July 2009

Arts & Letters

Dirty work

By Luke Davies
Christine Jeffs’ ‘Sunshine Cleaning’

Television’s police-procedural dramas have suffered for some time now from a disease for which there is as yet no apparent cure. It hasn’t been adequately studied or named, but might best be thought of as Forensic Overkill Syndrome. It multiplies by the day, virally, exponentially. You can’t change channels without being hit by another smash zoom into a bullet casing or fragment of glass or UV-lit blood splatter; you’ll then be transported, sometimes via bullet-cam through vital organs, to a jerky, stylised, black-and-white flashback of the crime being committed, often in slow motion, while a rapid-fire voice-over from some geeky but Hollywood-handsome crime-lab super-brain fills in the blanks. Then it will be back to the crime scene, or crime lab, for further punishment.

Christine Jeffs’ slender but charming Sunshine Cleaning (released last month) is a long way from that world, and yet there’s an odd resonance, for it considers what is to be done, and how, when the experts have left and the crime-scene tape has been taken away. A stillness descends on these deserted places. They seem sad and bereft, haunted by their moment of trauma, and Jeffs (who made the Plath biopic Sylvia in 2003 and the excellent New Zealand drama Rain in 2001) captures with great care their texture and tone.

Written by Megan Holley, and with a lovely, grainy, slightly down-and-out Albuquerque captured by cinematographer John Toon – shades of Kent L Wakeford’s treatment of Phoenix and Tucson in Scorcese’s excellent and neglected 1974 Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore  Sunshine Cleaning tells the story of Rose (Amy Adams), a young single mother for whom circumstances create an unusual career path. Rose works for a cleaning service called Pretty Clean; in her crisp, pink uniform she finds herself busily attending to the house-cleaning needs of Albuquerque’s upper half. Adams is a fine actor, and here she plays Rose with the tight, quivering lips of someone for whom things have not been going all that well. One day, she is embarrassed to find herself cleaning the house of an old classmate (they were cheerleaders together; Rose’s cheerleading days are apparently the pinnacle of her life to date).

“This is just a temporary thing until I phase over into real estate,” Rose explains, caught off guard. The woman smiles politely. Rose looks naked and forlorn. At home, she sticks affirmations to her bathroom mirror on Post-it notes: “You are strong. You are powerful. You can do anything. You are a winner.” (Later, talking to herself, she riffs: “I am strong. I am powerful. I am a fucking loser.”)

Her sulky goth sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), all studded belts and Doc Marten boots, can’t hold on to a job. Norah babysits Rose’s son, Oscar (the appealing Jason Spevack), and tells him delightfully surreal bedtime stories that she makes up on the fly: “And the thing is that he knows the Lobster Man is out there, somewhere, and he’s totally screwed … ’cos, um, ’cos his tongue is stuck to the mailbox.” “Well, why did he lick the mailbox?” “Because he has OCD and is obsessed with licking mailboxes.” “Why wasn’t he in school?”

Steve Zahn tones down his usual comic lunacy as Mac, a pleasant policeman with whom Rose is having a friendly, if uninspired, affair. Rose tells Nora she is attending night classes in real estate, but she is in fact meeting Mac in seedy motels. Norah sees through the flimsy ruse. It’s not a world where secrets stay secret for long.

Alan Arkin is the women’s grumpy father. Arkin keeps being cast in these roles, but he never just phones them in. You can still see the freewheeling haplessness of his Yossarian from Catch-22 (1970), or his wonderfully panicked, beset-by-calamity dentist from The In-Laws (1979), but his characters these days carry a hardness and a cynicism too: life has somehow passed them by, and surely it’s life’s fault. There’s something dynamic, a kind of fallen grandeur, in his nuanced mix of bitterness and just-getting-on-with-it. Grandpa is not a great role model – he seems to operate at the fringes of legitimate commerce. (When he adds “Since 1963” to a business logo on the side of a van and Rose pulls him up on it, he says, “It’s a business lie. It’s different from a life lie.”)

When Oscar, who has taken to licking walls (and, indeed, teachers), is expelled, Rose needs money to get him into a private school. The sisters, through Mac, enter the crime-scene clean-up business. It’s definitely not, as Rose seems to think, a logical step up from Pretty Clean. They turn up to their very first job, where there’s an awful lot of blood in a bathroom, with Spray ’n’ Wipe and dish scourers.

While Rose tries to build up her gruesome fledgling business, Grandpa looks after Oscar, and the two develop an unspoken pact: Oscar observes, seemingly without judgement, Grandpa’s shady deals; Grandpa, in turn, doesn’t look down upon Oscar as a troubled kid who got thrown out of school for being weird and disturbing. “You get bored a lot?” asks Grandpa. “Yeah.” “You look out the window?” “Yeah.” “Well see, that proves how intelligent you are! They should be catering to you!”

Clifton Collins, Jr, who was excellent as the murderer Perry Smith in Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005), plays Winston, a one-armed guy who sells heavy-duty cleaning supplies. After their first foray into a crime scene, the sisters wind up in Winston’s shop. While they are in there, another customer, the town’s regular professional clean-up guy, asks Winston, “Did you hear there’s a couple of amateurs poaching jobs? Did a decomp for $500.” Winston takes Rose under his wing, and before long he’s steering her down the right path; she gets her hazardous-materials certification, a van, protective clothing, and eventually, even business cards. (‘Sunshine Cleaning’ is the name she and Norah decide on.)

Mary Lynn Rajskub appears in a slightly thankless role as Lynn, a lesbian who works in the blood bank and misunderstands Norah’s interest in her. Lynn is the daughter of an alcoholic mother who committed suicide. Suicide figures greatly here: the film opens with one; Rose and Norah attend to the clean-ups of at least two; and a fourth, a critical part of the backstory, holds the sisters back from fully living. In dealing with these, Jeffs employs some fairly black humour. In one scene, a man has committed suicide by shotgun in a hunting-supplies store, making a terrible mess; one of the forensic police calls out cheerfully, “He’s over here in fishing too.”

The sensitive one-armed guy who builds model aeroplanes; the uptight lesbian who works at the blood bank; the disturbed kid who’s sweet as a button; the cranky granddad who’s still trying to work the angles; the disgruntled goth sister who needs to release her past pain: we’re deep in indie territory here, and there’s no getting out. But Jeffs nonetheless makes the journey a pleasant one. Sunshine Cleaning has an unhurried tone, and we are given enough time and space to care for the characters’ small lives. The unusual world of the crime-scene clean-up business seems to operate as a metaphor for the more generalised melancholy of small-town, outer-suburban or trailer-park life. The blood of the crime scenes is superficially arresting, but the tableaux the women enter are of greater interest. Each crime scene is like a sad, frozen slice of still life; the sisters walk into a kind of haunted emptiness. The places look lived-in, but abandoned. Sometimes they’re merely messy, other times they show the ravages of lives not well-lived: the claustrophobic clutter, the take-away containers discarded across the floor, and the sudden suspension of normal activity. It’s positively Pompeiian, but what we’re getting is an archaeology of despair rather than of terror. There’s terror, too, of course, implicitly: there’s always one room, one spot, where the crisis occurred, where the dried blood is caked most thickly. Adams and Blunt convey well, just by the way they enter these houses and apartments, the stench and sourness of failed lives.

Ultimately, surprisingly, this doesn’t weigh the film down too much. The clean-up jobs are few and far between, and there’s nothing overly graphic about them – there is a merciful lack of Forensic Overkill Syndrome. Sunshine Cleaning is more concerned with the family’s drama, and with individual struggles for betterment and dignity; much of this, despite the dark notes, is funny and sweet. It’s a small film, and occasionally it wears its heart on its sleeve too conspicuously, as when Adams valiantly delivers the undeliverable lines, “We come into peoples’ lives when they’ve experienced something profound and – sad. And we help. In some small way we help.”

Such lines are far outnumbered by sharper scenes, such as when Norah tries to comfort Oscar, who has been taunted at school for being a bastard but doesn’t know what the word means. “It just means your mom wasn’t married when she had you, it’s no big deal,” she tells him. “You know, in a couple of years you’ll find it’s a free pass to cool, right? You’ll probably start a band. Called Bastard Son. Use it to impress the chicks. Whole bastard thing is working for you.” Oscar glances between his grinning mother and his deadpan aunt, who leans in and whispers in his ear: “You’ll be the coolest bastard in the room.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: July 2009
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