Third Person: Inside a Writer’s Mind

By Sandra Olmsted

Writer director Paul Haggis presents a negotiation of grief, guilty, and reality in his latest film, Third Person. Much like his earlier film, Crash (2004), Haggis employs his own special brand of magical realism in Third Person, which makes the film strange and confusing as three stories played out in New York, Rome, and Paris and the “characters” who populate them intertwine. They have either sprung from the mind of Michael (Liam Neeson), or he knows them. Three dark-haired women and two blonde women attorneys resemble each other for a reason, which is one of the puzzles Haggis develops. Discovering which characters are fabrications of Michael’s mind provides the central puzzle of Haggis’ film. In Third Person, three stories of a life in disarray explore the loss of a child and the guilt related to it in various situations, but the stories unfold very slowly, making this an overly-long film only for the patient viewer who doesn’t want everything explained quickly and easily in the first ten minutes.

In one of the variations, Scott (Adrien Brody), an American in Rome for industrial espionage, scores his fashion design secrets and stops by a local bar, where he meets Monika (Moran Atias), a immigrant from Eastern Europe. She’s on her way to pick her eight-year-old daughter up from the traffickers who smuggled the child to Italy. When the money she was to pay the smugglers goes missing, Scott plunges into the drama of Monika’s world while listening repeatedly to the message left him by his seven-year-old daughter and being hung up on by his wife in New York. Once the smugglers sees Monika with a “rich American boyfriend,” they keep upping the price and threatening to sell the girl into sex slavery. The scenario appeals to Scott’s need to be the hero and save the child and will echoes emotions in Michael’s story, when it is revealed.

In a second variation on the theme, Julia (Mila Kunis) struggles to regain partial custody of her son after an incident where she may have endangered the child’s life. Even though she ultimately saved her son’s life, Rick (James Franco), her ex-husband and a now famous artist, won’t let her see their son and enjoys using the legal proceedings to show that Julia is irresponsible. Julia either self-sabotages or has bad luck at every turn, and when she misses an important meeting, she forfeits any opportunity to see her child. Rick’s live-in girlfriend, Sam (Loan Chabanol), becomes a witness to Julia’s grief and guilt in a chance meeting, and although Julia doesn’t know who Sam is, Sam sympathizes with Julia. Torn up by being unable to hold her child and struggling to hold menial jobs after giving up a promising acting career to raised their son, Julia take extreme actions, which again mirror emotions about fame won and lost and letting go in Michael’s tale.

Michael, whose first book won him a Pulitzer Prize, struggles to finish a new novel when his girlfriend, Anna (Olivia Wilde), joins him in his Paris, but stays in a separate hotel room. She also gets calls from another man. Michael and Anna have a frenetic love which requires that they torment each other. Some of the ways they torment each other amuse, arouse, and/or others frighten both them and the audience. They seem to be punishing each other, yet they also have moments of real love and understanding. She wants validation for her fiction writing, which he labels only an extension of her journalistic writing, and that temporarily drives her into the arms of another older man. This man’s identity reveals Anna to be a lost child of another kind. Meanwhile, Michael’s publisher tells him he won’t publish his latest work because the quality of his work has fallen. Michael and his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger), an attorney, exchange a few phone calls, revealing more details of their son’s death and the truths Michael cannot tell himself or others.

In addition to the themes of a lost child, marriages falling apart, and secrets kept, the theme of technology failing occurs in each story as does a negotiation of the elusiveness of fame. Unable to deal with his grief and guilt over his son’s death, Michael struggles to write away his feelings by creating third person accounts of people dealing with the same loss and emotions. The trick is figuring out which of the storylines and the backstories, characters, and subplots are real, where overlap between reality and the writer’s imagination, and why some aren’t real at all. Haggis resorts to magical realism and again uses a single moment to illuminate the puzzle he’s created when a slip of paper seemingly transports itself across the Atlantic from one hotel room to another. Clearly, Haggis uses a blending of reality, fiction, and imagination to show how a creative mind struggles to make sense of tragedy.

The performances make the film work, and every actor gives their all to their roles; however, Mila Kunis stands out. Her emotional, heart-wrenching performance evokes pity, sadness, and even disgust at times. Kudos to Haggis for eliciting great performances for his cast; of course, incredibly talented actors and actresses make up that cast. Third Person, a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens July 11, and runs a long 137 minutes. The film is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity. More of Olmsted’s reviews can be found at <>.

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