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CIFF 2022 | ‘Raymond & Ray’ Review: Heartbreak Feels Good in a Film Like This

Ethan Hawke and Sophie Okonedo shine alongside Ewan McGregor in Rodrigo García’s new tale of family and forgiveness — or lack thereof.

By Entertainment

Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke in “Raymond & Ray,” premiering October 21, 2022 on Apple TV+.

It’s a tale as old as time — two brothers, not in the least bit alike, must come together for a life-changing odyssey in the wake of a death in the family. In this case, those brothers are mild-mannered, soft-spoken Raymond (Ewan McGregor) and boisterous recovering addict Ray (Ethan Hawke). Their estranged, abusive father Harris has shuffled off this mortal coil, and now they must drive several hundred miles across the country to settle his affairs once and for all. Still bearing the scars of the distinct abuse and humiliation each of them suffered at his hands, Ray and Raymond know that this will not be an easy trip. But what they least expect to hear when they finally arrive at the funeral home comes to pass — their late father’s last wish is that his sons dig his grave, and bury him themselves. Thus begins the brothers’ strange journey to relinquishing generations of inherited trauma, involving plenty of jazz, grave-digging, and even two decent “deez nuts” jokes. (I am not kidding.)

It should come as no surprise that writer-director Rodrigo García has given life to such a movie, seeing as the premise of “Raymond & Ray” comes off like a spiritual successor to his late father, Gabriel García Marquez’s acclaimed novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” albeit minus the magical realism and with a bit more comedy sprinkled in. Where the Buendías’ story in “Solitude” travels down through their family tree, “Raymond & Ray” instead focuses on how the lateral spread of family, especially when found later in life, can both hurt and heal in the wake of fresh grief. Raymond and Ray do not share the same mother, and neither do the three other brothers who pop up at the funeral as swiftly and suddenly as whack-a-moles in a fair game. In fact, they don’t even have a shared image of their father in common. Where middle-aged Ray and Raymond knew Harris as a mean, vindictive philanderer, their younger siblings have either never met him, or shockingly enough, remember him as a good father and beloved family man.

The bewilderment that the brothers feel upon discovering the duality of their dead father is palpable, and Hawke and McGregor’s subtle glances and upward eyebrow twitches drive home the tragi-comedy of discovering that they might not have known their father very well at all, without cheapening or over-playing these moments. Thankfully, the film doesn’t go too far in attempting to redeem Harris, either. While all his friends seem to remember him as a fount of nothing but abundant charisma and goodwill, the brothers act as the audience’s dowsing rod for what is true or false — his conversion to Judaism is technically true, albeit for only 30 minutes (?!) according to Ray, whereas his self-described “Tongan roots” are completely, utterly false. Their father is still a liar, a cheat, and a prankster from beyond the grave, and once again, the brothers find themselves picking up the pieces for him.

There are some hints that their father knew of his own stultifying effect on his sons, too. His eccentric ex-lover Lucia tells the brothers that he would constantly stare at childhood photos of them, yet refused to call and ask them to visit, because “the boys and the men are not the same thing.” Indeed they aren’t — the men have long since tired of his bullshit and are exasperated at every turn by his oft-ludicrous funeral arrangements, will stipulations, and dying wishes. And yet, by staying distant, his abusive specter has maintained just enough control over them to continue playing “mind games” from beyond the grave … or so Ray suspects.

This is where the film begins to drag its feet a little, unnecessarily muddying what could easily have been a clear-cut meditation on grief and its complexities. Early on in the film, Raymond disbelievingly asks Ray if he truly has no good memories of his father, to which Ray curtly responds, “I wish I didn’t.” This small exchange alone is a breath of fresh air amidst countless other examinations of abusive parental relationships that paint the abuser as downright despicable. Here, García hints at an exploration of a treacherous middle ground — if a parent is certainly more malicious than they should be, but not malicious enough so as to be unflinchingly evil, as with most cases of emotional abuse, then where does that leave their children? Are they entitled to cast off that parent completely? Of course, most might say yes, but this obviously isn’t as simple as that for the children themselves to internalize. It’s not a dilemma that is often explored, which is what makes it all the more disappointing when “Raymond & Ray” hints that it might grapple with such an issue, only to never bring it up again; exchanging it for more cut-and-dry accounts of emotional abuse.

Predictably, both brothers suffer emotional breakdowns at their father’s funeral, but the unexpected ways in which they finally give up on restraining their resentment and regret hit like a bolt from the blue. While this serves as great emotional catharsis during the film’s climax, the equally perplexing denouement makes far less sense, particularly in Raymond’s case where a tongue-in-cheek hint at the tables turning on his father comes off as unneeded and bizarre. One could even argue that both Raymond and Ray ultimately don’t find any solace from attending the funeral in and of itself. Raymond will never hear his father apologize to him in the flesh, nor have him show any interest in his life; and Ray will never get to share his passion for jazz with his father without being shunned, insulted, and called “white trash.” But in the face of absolutely nothing good from their father, even in death, the brothers somehow find it in themselves to move on in spite of it all. And that is how the film redeems itself.

Of course, the strength of the film’s message is only elevated by a luminous performance from Ethan Hawke (even in his sleaziest role in years), and an equally powerful turn from Sophie Okonedo, who manages to imbue a minor character with earth-shaking gravitas. Ewan McGregor serves as a good enough foil for Hawke, but given his past track record for playing similar characters much more compellingly, Raymond can sometimes feel more like a watered-down version of Mark Renton from “Trainspotting 2” instead of a new, distinct character. Special mention should also go to Maribel Verdú, who gamely embodies Lucia with just the right amount of quirkiness to avoid reducing her to a mere plot device, or God forbid, a dated MILF stereotype.

“Raymond & Ray” isn’t really a film about forgiveness, or getting your dues. It’s about deciding to move on with your life anyway, even when there is no forgiveness to be had, and old debts can no longer be paid. Perhaps García doesn’t quite go as far as he could (or should) have in his exploration of the legacy of emotional abuse, but he nonetheless manages to put across a novel point that hasn’t quite been broached in similar films. Buoyed up by the strength of its very capable cast, “Raymond & Ray” ultimately turns out so poignant and bittersweet that one would almost expect Nicole Kidman to burst into your cinema (or living room) as the credits begin to roll. Heartbreak does feel good in a film like this.

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