After Benny & Joon, Depp’s second film of 1993 was the drama What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? based on a book by Peter Hedges. Directed by Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in Yemen) brings an outsiders eye to this American tale giving it a unique perspective.
[Warning: Review May Contain Spoilers]
Depp is Gilbert Grape one of four children living at home with their widowed mother, Bonnie, who’s known simply as Momma through out the film. As the “man of the house” Gilbert feels a familial responsibility to fill in where his absent father let the family down, including protecting and caring for his mentally challenged younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gilbert chafes against the burden of responsibility and becomes increasingly more selfish and careless in his responsibility. Depp gives a subtle performance as Gilbert communicating his frustration and disappointment with where his life has ended up with body language and knowing looks. Depp’s performance tends to get over shadowed in this movie by a young DiCaprio’s portrayal of a mentally handicapped teen with whom he shares a majority of the scenes. DiCaprio’s Arnie becomes the films own Greek Chorus pointing out what others are thinking and filling the audience in.
Almost everyone that interacts with Gilbert in the movie represents a facet of the life that Gilbert himself cannot see. Gilbert’s friends are an undertaker played by Crispin Glover and a handy-man played by John C. Reilly. The undertaker represents death and the ultimate outcome of Gilbert’s drab existence in his home town. John C. Reilly’s character represents the happy-go-lucky acceptance of the life that Gilbert is living and the ability to find the positives in the existence he has chosen for himself. It’s little wonder then, when Becky (Juliette Lewis) and her grandmother become stranded while passing through town, allow Gilbert to see what life in the outside world could be like.
The entire time the film is unfolding you feel as if tragedy is stalking Gilbert and his family and when it finally comes it’s an opening of the emotional flood gates that has been holding the family anchored in place for so long.
I loved how beautifully the film portrayed the relationships of the Grape family. They were strained, subtle and real relationships that we recognize in our family dynamic and those around us. The film managed to be dramatic without being saccharine or schmaltzy.
One the one hand I am sorry I missed this film when it first came out in the early 1990s, but on the other hand I am thankful that I found it in my life at a time when I was better able to appreciate all its nuances. I think What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? my favourite Depp film in the marathon rewatch so far.
Up next week is a return to the bizarre side of Depp’s characters with his portrayal of schlock film maker – Ed Wood.