Visiting SIFF this June with The Details, Jacob Aaron Estes was also returning to the location where he'd shot the dark comedy three years before. His very flawed Seattleite hero, played by Tobey Maguire, drives a Prius with an Obama bumper sticker and lives with his family in a paradigmatic Northwest Craftsman bungalow. Which, as any ambitious Montlake homeowner would, he hopes to improve with an addition and new lawn. But that green turf attracts a different kind of Seattle native—raccoons, which dig up the sod and unearth some dark secrets inside the Lang household.
Opens Fri., Nov. 9 at Sundance and iPic cinemas. Rated R. 91 minutes. See review.
Dr. Jeff (Maguire) at first appears to be your typical liberal, leftie do-gooder, says Estes, since "I'm a liberal, leftie do-gooder myself. And I was writing about my own influences and impulses on a certain level. These are people who are trying to be good people and are failing miserably—in a way that a lot of us might fail. A lot of people have these great intentions to do good and yet do these terrible things. Politicians are in public service for some good reasons, and yet they're doing nasty, deceitful things. Filmmakers, too."
For his second movie (after the excellent 2004 Mean Creek), Estes drew on direct experience, he explains. "The raccoons and the construction stuff is really from my own life. About seven years ago, my wife got pregnant, and we bought a house in the desert in Los Angeles. And lo and behold, the raccoons came. And they started destroying the sod. And I really didn't want them destroying the sod! I was throwing stuff at them at night. I was trying to set traps that they didn't go into."
He and a gardener even devised an intricate contraption baited with chicken, which the wily raccoons also avoided. "My wife called me an idiot. Again. And the raccoons came back and obliterated my lawn. It was revenge. It was an adventure." Everywhere he's traveled on the film-festival circuit, says Estes, "everyone has their own great stories about raccoons. Finally, I did what I should have done in the beginning, which my wife suggested all along, was to get rid of the grass. But now we have skunks."
There's your sequel! Estes laughs at the suggestion. But in The Details, also currently available via On Demand, Dr. Jeff isn't such a forward thinker. One blunder leads to another, and he wades deeper into transgression—laying out poison for the raccoons, straying from his marriage, and worse. As if to atone for his misdeeds, Dr. Jeff decides to donate a kidney to a guy he barely knows at the gym (Dennis Haysbert), but even that good deed brings further punishment. Says Estes, "I think he's trying to live a decent life, but he's making a bunch of mistakes. If he'd been honest with his wife . . . there would be no murder in the movie."
Before getting to that bloody point, however, The Details interpolates some fantasy scenes that give the suburban comedy a slightly surreal quality. When Dr. Jeff is drawn into conflict with his crazy-cat-lady neighbor (the wonderfully loopy Laura Linney), her home is like the fever dream of a hippie Blanche DuBois. His fantasy life, chiefly devoted to online porn, is overwhelmed by her fantasy life—in which the two are courtly lovers meeting on horseback in the woods. The movie's comic tone and transitions aren't always smooth. ("This movie has taken its time," admits Estes of reshoots and recutting by the notorious Harvey Weinstein after its premiere at Sundance 2011.) But that off-kilter aspect helps make The Details unpredictable and sometimes quite uproarious. Dr. Jeff meets each fresh disaster with wide-eyed astonishment, and the sheer laxity of his morals reveals him to be a polite, banal psychopath.
By contrast, Linney's Lila carries a poignance beyond the "wackadoodle" trappings Estes wrote for the character. She's both implausible and touchingly human. "I've known crazy cat ladies," he notes. "She was sort of an amalgamation." How broad did he intend for Linney to make Lila? "I think Laura knew she was going to make big choices. The only choice I was afraid of was the sex scene. We just said, 'Holy shit!' It set the tone for everything."
Another bit of offbeat casting is Ray Liotta as Peter, the older restauranteur husband of Dr. Jeff's ex (Kerry Washington), a fellow physician. "I've always admired Ray Liotta," says Estes. "Ray has a persona as a heavy. I got really excited about showing a side of him we don't expect. Peter becomes the only moral decision-maker in the movie. He speaks for the audience." (Indeed, when the alpha male and the weakling square off, Peter's exact admonition to Dr. Jeff is, "You're the kind of guy who's gonna fuck it all up by himself." Which of course he does.)
In The Details, Estes says he "wanted to make a story about adults, about what's it like to be an adult. It's a lot like being a kid. It's like being an animal."