One of our greatest American philosophers, William James, writes about the pragmatic aspect of faith in an essay called The Will to Believe. In the essay, James puts his finger on the aspect of Faith that requires Will. One doesn’t always just get bitch-slapped one day by Jesus. Sometimes you have to just look into the dark void, inhale, and take the leap. The facts may not add up, there may not be any scientific proof, but sometimes it just feels right to jump. But just because you jump doesn’t mean you have decided to deny the doubts. That anxiety is still present and it never really goes away. Wellness, the powerful new film by Jake Mahaffy, dramatizes the courage that it takes to make the leap and then fully deal with the doubts and anxiety when you look at yourself in the mirror. Wellness is an ode to that particular American will to believe.
Thomas Lindsey, played phenomenally well by the non-actor Jeff Clark (a one-time actual vacuum salesman), is trying to sell the Wellness Program to other potential salesmen. The product is a capsule pill and it can work miracles for both one’s personal health and wealth. In Jeff’s actual words (most of the film was improvised by the actor), “after taking the first pill the weight starts to pour off and then the elimination process begins…” Needless to say, Thomas has the faith and the will but he’s just not too good of a salesman. He bumbles the pitch and he has a fear of closing. He also is having a tough time with his boss. To make matters worse, the sales materials have not been sent as promised and he is forced to create his own materials in a copy shop minutes before a presentation. It soon becomes obvious, first to us, and later to Thomas, that he has been duped and the product is a scam.
We’ve seen this character and this story before—as recently as last year, in fact—with Craig Zobel’s fantastic Great World of Sound. It’s a classic American character, the down-and-out salesman who won’t give up. We saw it in Glengarry Glen Ross and we saw the real deal in Albert and David Maysles’ documentary masterpiece, Salesman. What makes Wellness unique is that the character here is presented fully exposed, with no narrative manipulation shaping our perspective of him and his world.
Clark’s performance is so believable and the staging is so compelling that it actually makes you squirm. This is ordinary life as a John Carpenter horror film. As you watch Thomas deal with one rejection after another you feel like you have fully gotten under this character’s skin. You start to understand what it means to be him, on that cold day, alone in a shitty hotel, with no one helping you out, broke, the future bleak and unknown. If you were Thomas Lindsey, would you have the will to smile? Could you still tell your wife that all is well?
Wellness is the type of film that seems to be artless. The performance is so naturalistic and believable one might think the filmmaker just had to turn the camera on and press record. The landscape seems so ordinary and bland one might just assume that no location scouting was done, yet it is this kind of drama which is actually the most difficult to realize. There are lots of films here at SXSW that want to appear natural, or improvised, and while some actually are improvised, very few elevate beyond that standard improv actors exercise vibe. Very few of them actually allow the character to truly delve into that scary, real, unpredictable place.
It’s currently the vogue here to indicate that unpredictable aspect of real conversation through contrived dialogue that stutters, stops and darts, but often the attempt falls flat or just lands as twee mumblecore quirk. Many of these films that aspire to capture the scary unpredictable nature of actual relationships fail to also use some of the most basic aspects of the medium. In some films there seems to be no awareness of set dressing, lighting or even framing. Wellness stands shoulders above many films here because the filmmaker has managed to gain control over the elements of the medium to the degree that he can use them without us barely noticing. The feeling of dread that hangs over this movie, despite the fact that our main character is so willfully optimistic, derives from Mahaffy’s ability to frame the character in rooms and landscapes in a manner that conveys all of the aforementioned themes. This is not just handheld camera work trying to be intense by following the actors in closeups. This is actual filmmaking done artfully through framing, lighting, editing and shot sequencing choices. Nothing flashy going on here, just filmmaking by an artist who has put lots of thought into the basic elements of the medium and has something to say about what it means to be American. It is simply mind-blowing.
— Mike S. Ryan
(Wellness won the Narrative Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival, go here to find out more information about the film and link to the trailer.)