Ewan McGregor And Ethan Hawke Funeral Dramedy Is Sam Shepard-Lite [TIFF]

Dec 18, 2022

Arriving at an isolated cabin late at night, Raymond (Ewan McGregor) hasn’t spoken to his half-brother Ray (Ethan Hawke) for many years. Slightly estranged but forever entwined due to their shared parentage, the brothers reconnect as they make an uneasy journey to their late father Harris’ funeral 100 miles away. “Raymond & Ray,” the latest from writer-director Rodrigo García (“Albert Nobbs”), plays a bit like Sam Shepard-lite but features yet another stellar performance from Hawke, who over the past decade has proven himself to be one of the great leading man character actors of his generation.
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Along with sharing a name, Raymond and Ray shared a childhood marked by their father’s casual and increasingly cruel abuse. As the two make their way toward his final resting place, they swap stories of the ways their father hurt them, both physically and emotionally. It is this trauma bond that keeps the two brothers in contact, despite their polar opposite personalities. Neither has seen their father in over a decade and the more they learn about his final years, the more they realize maybe they never really knew him after all. 
Raymond has been divorced twice, with his third marriage on the rocks. He has a grown son in the Army, but there’s something off about their relationship, too, causing Raymond to clam up every time he’s mentioned. As Raymond, McGregor is sapped of his electricity and charm. He’s a nebbish man stuck in a beige life, frozen forever like a deer in the headlights from all the bad things he’s endured. This is clearly what McGregor was going for, but it doesn’t quite work, mostly just coming across as blank, though he does milk some laughs from his shocked reactions to the increasingly ridiculous requests their father left for his burial – including that any son who attends the funeral must help dig the grave themselves.
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For Ray, it’s almost as if García wrote the character by cribbing from other characters Hawke has played in the last decade. He’s a little bit Lee from his 2019 Broadway performance of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” a suave misfit with anger issues who has come back into his brother’s life after the death of their tyrant of a father. In fact, his costume in the film is almost exactly the same as the one he wore on Broadway. There are also traces of his sublime turn as tortured trumpet player Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue.” Ray is also a trumpet player and recovering addict whose love of music caused much friction between him and his father when Ray was a teenager. Thankfully, Hawke never hits the same emotional beat twice and finds ways to make Ray more of an individual with a unique interiority than what was on the page. 
A lady’s man who effortlessly charms every woman he’s ever met, including a gas station attendant and the receptionist at the funeral home, Ray is called out for his leering gaze by his father’s nurse Kiera (Sophie Okonedo). As the two spend more time together, Ray opens up to her about his traumatic past while she shares the Harris she knew. From the jump, Kiera sees right through Ray’s nonchalant veneer into the lonely, lost soul he really is. Okonedo is wonderful here, and although often the script dictates actions that don’t quite ring true, at least her very final moment with Ray is exactly as it should be given his behavior. 
Getting the shortest end of the stick is Spanish actress Maribel Verdú (“Blancanieves,” “The Flash”) as their father’s ex-lover Lucía, who is stuck in one of those female characters that is so overwritten, so needlessly quirky, they make you cringe every time they’re on screen. When a completely unbelievable but obvious romance blooms between Lucía and Raymond, it makes the viewer want to completely check out of the film. 
As the day progresses and the funeral process becomes more and more absurd, less and less of the film really works (although Todd Luiso (“Jerry Maguire,” “Hello I Must Be Going”) is delightful as the dismayed funeral home director). There’s a reason Sam Shepard was considered a singular talent in modern American theater, and while García’s script tries hard to craft the same tone, it just never quite matches its ambitions. Story beats are telegraphed way too early, twists are not nearly as interesting as they think they are, and many of the characters haven’t an ounce of authenticity to them. 
The artificiality of the characters might have worked if the tone and visuals of the film were also over the top. Unfortunately, García doesn’t particularly have any panache in his framing or camera movement. The shitty green screen used for the scenes while Raymond and Ray are driving will make you long for the days of rear projection. He does, however, manage to capture how blisteringly hot and awful most cemeteries are during the day, with the sun relentlessly bearing down on everything. Is it particularly cinematic, though? Not really.
There are some actual chuckles in Rodrigo García’s “Raymond & Ray,” but they do not outweigh the groans. Unfortunately, aside from the always reliable Hawke and Okonedo, there isn’t much to praise about this deadpan dark comedy, which is miscalculated on almost every level. [C-]
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