If you manage to go in blind to “Eric Larue,” the directorial debut of actor Michael Shannon, you might think the titular character is dead. His parents, Janice and Ron (Judy Greer and Alexander Skarsgård, respectively), go through the motions of their everyday routines with a gaping hole in their emotional lives. It feels a bit like the somber sadness of “Rabbit Hole,” the Nicole Kidman-starring adaptation of the David Lindsay-Abaire play about the grief over a lost child.
But in time, it becomes clear that Brett Neveu’s screenplay based on his stage play is about a different kind of parental trauma. “Eric Larue” is more in line with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” or “Mass” as it probes the emotional wreckage of school shootings from the vantage point of parents tied to the carnage. As American politicians continue to fail in passing sensible gun safety legislation, the “mother of a monster” archetype will only continue to grow in prominence. Greer is up to the challenge, even if the film itself cannot always match her brilliance.
“Eric Larue” separates itself from the aforementioned films exploring similar subject matter by widening its lens. Those films ask how the parents of a killer can live with themselves. Shannon and Neveu, however, ask how the parents of a killer can live within a community. Society cannot rid itself of these figures. It must try to understand and reintegrate them.
But the film’s focal point is Judy Greer, who is better than ever in “Eric Larue.” Shannon knows exactly what to do with everyone’s favorite on-screen best friend, guiding her to center stage with devastating impact. He gives his leading lady the space to be still and reserved so Greer’s moments of laying raw her unspoken pain land with that much more force. He knows the way her characters usually wield their vulnerability as a defensive mechanism to keep people out, not bring them in, to her quiet struggle.
Flipping the script on Greer’s relatability proves the revelation of “Eric Larue.” A quip from Janice like “Jesus isn’t a bodyguard,” offered as a retort to Ron’s ridiculous story of needing spiritual salvation from loud music, no longer tickles the funny bone here. Instead, it cuts to the bone.
Janice and Ron seek to find some path forward through religion, as many people in the wake of tragedy do. Janice becomes something of a “pain sponge,” to use a term coined by another Skarsgård character. She takes a path of atonement by reconciling with the victims’ families while he charts a course to absolution through spiritual bypassing. Ron finds solace in a more evangelical Christian community where a powerful pastor (Tracy Letts) preaches in a contemporary style but conservative mores.
“Eric Larue” provides a nuanced portrayal of religious people and institutions alike. There’s no trace of the fury that might stem from Shannon’s penchant for insulting “the former guy” and his supporters. Through his directorial eyes, these churches are a rare bastion of community in a world of isolated individualism. They serve as meeting points for broken people who search for heavenly meaning but often find earthly misery all over again.
If anything, “Eric Larue” might be a little too reverent. Shannon’s roots in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company come through strongly as he defers to the drawn-out scene as the project’s dramatic core. Especially in its languorous back half, the film does start to feel exceptionally stagey. Not filmed in a theater, necessarily, because Shannon resists the urge for simple staging or dialogue recitation. The conflict resolution occurs in dense scenes that extend to turgid lengths. (The film’s eventual distributor may well take the editing shears to whittle it down from nearly two hours.)
Shannon’s first feature might begin to sag under the weight of this stilted dialogue and stunted duration, but there is still a lot to admire in “Eric Larue.” Those qualities are not necessarily all concentrated in Judy Greer, either. Even if the film moves in circles, at least it’s circling something honest and true about spirituality and society alike. [B-]