A veteran character actor, Nelson has the sort of face that seems to expect the very worst, and he writes his scripts and makes his films accordingly.
Beloved professor Walter Zarrow (Sam Waterston) is first seen buying flowers for his wife Marcia (Glenn Close) at a corner deli. Alive on a wave of self-intoxication, Professor Zarrow introduces himself to the man who has sold him flowers at the deli for many years, Ignacio (Ivan Goris), and his slightly condescending bonhomie leads to bad trouble: After a discreet cut away from Zarrow, we see that he has been stabbed outside of a building on the Upper West Side, in a “perfectly senseless” way, as he says to a man (Corey Stoll) who comes to his aid, and then the film flashes back to a time shortly before the stabbing.
Zarrow’s son (Nelson) is dealing with the fact that his wife (Jessica Hecht) is having a cancer scare, while over in New Jersey we meet the wife of Stoll’s investment banker, a blond heavy drinker played by Gretchen Mol. We watch contests of petty irritation between Mol and a mother at her daughter’s school and a nasty argument over a chair in a café between student Sophie (Kristen Stewart) and an insensitive boy, and then we see a stand-off between a smart and despairing heroin addict (K. Todd Freeman) and his disapproving, somewhat removed lawyer brother (Michael K. Williams). The writing in these scenes is very studied and just this side of arch, and this is a challenge that all of the actors here have to negotiate.
These are articulate and sometimes over-articulate characters, people who use words like “irrepressibly” and “remuneration” and “superannuated.” You either make a leap and strive to seem like these words come naturally to you or you don’t, and most of the players pass this test, particularly Stewart, who has a nearly film-stopping monologue in a counselor’s office where she unloads all of her character’s rage and resentment about life.
Nelson shows his skill with performance in this scene, letting Stewart go as deep and as hard as she can into Sophie’s darkest feelings. Stewart’s Sophie is so despairing about what she sees around her that she has taken to burning herself with a curling iron in order to feel some control over her life, and Stewart makes this self-punishment seem gruelingly convincing and necessary.
Stewart is so tough and harsh here that she throws “Anesthesia” a bit off balance. What she does in her scene with the counselor is so riveting that it’s disappointing to go back to Mol’s and Stoll’s characters, neither of whom have much of a reason to be here except as ensemble window dressing. Waterston’s professor, who teaches philosophy with a specialty in Schopenhauer, is a perilously self-satisfied creation, with the sort of rapt and adoring students that seem to exist only in movies with high-flown teachers as characters (surely one or two of them might look a little bored by his lectures, or at least unimpressed).
The home life Walter shares with doting wife Marcia appears so cozy that it begins to be irritating, which is partly what the mysterious stabbing is all about — perhaps a kind of cosmic rejoinder. Maybe Professor Zarrow is tempting fate by being so happy with himself and his lectures on the futility of language and existence, all of which Waterston gives a kind of incongruous, folksy zest.
The editing and the compositions here can be slightly ungainly, and some of the characters are not quite fully realized, but Nelson ultimately transcends the limits of his own material through sheer, cussed determination and lively anger. It is the anger that runs through “Anesthesia” that gives it its flavor, its mood, and its ultimate gravity. This film demands to be taken very seriously, and it earns that right. The woebegone despair that is ever-present in Nelson’s face on screen also suffuses the best of his writing here as well as in his direction of Stewart, with whom he joins forces very dynamically.
Letter Box’d : Anesthesia is a very flawed but overly a very emotional film. The biggest crime an indie film can commit is to feel like an indie film, and Anesthesia is a big offender of this. A lot of times actors feel like actors but in other moments performances are powerful especially Kristen Stewart who is the obvious stand out performance. It’s a shame that she has such little screen time and that SOME of her dialogue comes off as cheesy because she SHINES in this film. One could argue that this is easily her best performance. The rest of the cast is hit or miss. My favorite aside from Kristen was Sam Waterson’s performance who I’ve never heard of until now but he is really such a likable actor on screen.
Until the the third act the different stories feel so disconnected to each other which bothered me a bit, but thankfully everything was wrapped up very nicely in the end. Even the drug addict character I hated throughout the whole film redeemed himself completely in the end which was nice. There’s one story in this film that hits very close to home for me with something personal that’s been going on right now in my life so to see it unfold on screen with a happy conclusion was a very emotional moment for me that made me so happy I decided to see this film. I really thank Tim Blake Nelson for making this film because it means so much to me right now.
The Hollywood Reporter : An involving drama with many storylines and one universal theme
A dozen or so characters dramatize the various ways we distract ourselves from the hard work of living in Tim Blake Nelson’s Anesthesia, a New York-set drama that marks the actor’s fifth feature behind the camera. Various storylines orbit around Walter Zarrow, a philosophy professor played by Sam Waterston, in ways we mostly understand from the start, thus avoiding the synchronicity clichés marring many other we’re-all-connected dramas. That isn’t to say the overlaps hold no surprises, but what’s more important here is the power of each thread to engage viewers in thoughtful discussion. A cast packed with names ranging from Waterston to Kristen Stewart to Michael K. Williams should attract enough attention at the box office to end Nelson’s slump there after Leaves of Grass and The Grey Zone.
In opening scenes, we witness the aftermath of a “perfectly senseless” attack that leaves Zarrow near death in the entryway of an Upper West Side apartment building. Jumping back to a week earlier, we see him in the classroom, where students are engaged and entertained, and learn that he is ready to retire with the wife (Glenn Close) he adores.
Meanwhile, Zarrow lends a sympathetic ear to both a student (Stewart) and a son (Nelson) in crisis; if scenes of him in the lecture hall didn’t peg him as the moral voice of the film, marveling at our species’ compulsion to propagate itself and asking if modern life has left any room for philosophy, these scenes do — well before we witness acts of charity that may draw the character into trouble. Any viewer entering the film without wanting to hug Waterston will have a crush by the picture’s end, with the actor perfectly embodying a flavor of learned humanism that carries us through a couple of more abstractly angst discussions of society’s decay.
Across town, Williams is sneaking away from his corporate-law duties to force an old friend (K. Todd Freeman) into rehab; a privileged suburban mother (Gretchen Mol) is swilling wine while calling out others on their sense of entitlement; her husband (Corey Stoll) is trysting in the city while claiming to be in China for work; and Nelson’s family is experiencing a couple of very different rites of passage.
Most of these storylines involve characters using narcotics, pot or booze to paper over their difficulties or keep the world at bay; in a couple of instances, harmful behavior is its own drug. Though this sounds heavy-handed on paper, it rarely feels that way; the film is focused enough on relationships not to sound preachy. If, in the end, it elicits few epiphanies about the myriad kinds of “anesthesia” we use, that’s no more damning than the accusation that Walter Zarrow has taught the same big questions for over three decades without ever giving his students the answers.
ScreenDaily : Lives of New Yorkers intersect around the brutal stabbing of a professor on the street in Anesthesia, written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson. This finely acted, tender, drama is one of the surprises of the Tribeca Film Festival.
It’s a lot to fit into a 90-minute feature, but the audience won’t lose track of who’s who in Nelson’s script, or of why we should care about them.
In the ensemble style of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth or Paul Haggis’s recent Third Person, Anesthesia examines how a tragic event can, for better or worse, be a jolt that throws aftershocks into the lives that it touches. Anesthesia, not a title that comes from anyone’s marketing department, refers to the unexamined life, business as usual.
This deftly constructed film will win over critics (probably older ones) and play widely on the festival circuit. Its cast, with Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Kristen Stewart and Gretchen Mol, should make it highly-promotable — ready for Oprah and every other chat show — but the film’s forthright sincerity could also make it a hard sell outside the US.
Nelson, a veteran actor now in his fifth feature, builds the drama around Walter Yarrow (Waterston), a philosophy professor at Columbia University who ends up bloody in the doorway of a building, still clutching a bouquet of flowers that he bought for his wife. A married man (Corey Stoll) who is having an affair in an upstairs apartment races to his aid.
As the film flashes back to events before that night, Yarrow’s daughter-in-law is shown preparing to have a tumor removed. His son (Tim Blake Nelson) is losing control of teenage kids who are experimenting with sex and pot. A student (Kristen Stewart) with doubts about her future in academia is burning herself with a curling iron. The life of a homeless man opens up a tragic tale of talent and addiction. And all of those stories have longer dramatic tendrils that Nelson explores.
No surprise, acting is the film’s most obvious strength. Probably due to a low budget and the many schedules that Nelson had to juggle, the style is remarkably natural. Mol is poignant as a smart career woman turned housewife/mom, frustrated and drinking too much with restive daughters in leafy New Jersey, who figures out that her husband (Stoll) is cheating. Nelson is specific and universal as the father who gets no respect from his precocious kids, just as his equally frustrated wife (Jessica Hecht) faces what could be a terminal diagnosis. K. Todd Freeman is heartbreaking as an aging addict strapped into rehab by his doctor and a childhood friend, who runs back to the streets when he feels abandoned by them, and runs to a grim fate later.
These and other lives are a lot to fit into a 90-minute feature, which can sometimes feel like an acting textbook or the pilot for a television series – which wouldn’t be a bad idea, if Nelson were the writer. Waterston’s character, who can get a bit too oratund as a professor who finds the humanity in the humanities late in life, throws academic quotations around as if he’s dropping names. And there are moments when characters speechify their respective plights to make the most of their brief moments in the script. For all those modest shortcomings, the audience won’t lose track of who’s who in Nelson’s script, or of why we should care about them.
Anesthesia comes from the heart, as few films do these days. Some NY locations will be recognizable, but DP Christina Voros skips the beauty shots to focus intimately on characters in everyday struggles that define them. New York doesn’t come to life here in Nelson’s oddly titled movie. New Yorkers are forced by death to reflect on lives unlived.
RT @KetchumAtMovies ANESTHESIA: Kristen Stewart delivers a heartbreaking, MASTERFUL performance. Moved me to TEARS. Worthy of endless accolades.#Oscars #TFF2015
RT @Deebar7 Still thinking bout last night’s #Anesthesia. Kristen & K.Todd Freeman gave so much of themselves into their respective roles I’m astonished. Was seated behind a movie critic & every time Kristen appeared, he couldn’t stop scribbling. She was transcendent even w/ <20min screentime RT @kaitlin_davis Tim Blake Nelson's Anesthesia is spectacular. Go see it! #TribecaFilmFestival RT @markcarabuena Anesthesia by Tim Blake Nelson is powerful, honest and metaphorically significant. Described wonderfully by a quote in this film "Beautifully, Achingly Alone." Well Done RT @MlleKatMichele You LAUGH. You CRY. You see, hear, live through this in life. It's as real as it gets. You will LOVE. IT. #Anesthesia #TFF2015 Brilliant cast. STELLAR performances: Sam W, Stew, Gretchen Mol, TBN, Michael Williams, Glenn, K. Todd Freeman. still doesn't beat CoSM though. No one did less/poorer a job. No one did more to compensate. Everyone played off each other superbly well. Equal collaboration Still teared, still laughed. The film doesn't lose its luster or affect the second time around ♥ RT @TheAmazingBeck Wow! Very moved by Anesthesia. Kristen Stewart is unbelievably heartbreaking and will bring about tears. #Oscars #TFF2015 RT @SwedishLincoln ANESTHESIA: Kristen Stewart gives possibly the best performance off her career, I'm still crying. Best Actress at #Oscars #TFF2015 RT @mscheyennebrown Anesthesia is my aesthetic. I had no idea Kristen Stewart had it in her. Certainly has proved her worth in Hollywood. Watch out Oscars! RT @imTulip It's a difficult task to string together many different stories in a movie, but Tim Blake Nelson nailed it. When you see #Anesthesia bring tissues!!! RT @Thejackiebass Kristen Stewart's performance is amazing in Anesthesia.Even though it was a small part everytime she was on screen it was captivating. She's in it for like 5 mins but it's so good and different story I enjoyed it. RT @AJYoung13 GROUNDBREAKING performance from Kristen Stewart in ANESTHESIA Got that Oscar on lock. I'm speechless. All naysayers can kiss her ass now. RT @jhoffman Need a minute to breathe after Tim Blake Nelson's ANESTHESIA. A thick, John Sayles-esque tone poem on ethics and society. I dug it. Hey Kristen Stewart fans, ur gal isn't in ANESTHESIA much but she gets 1 intense monologue that, I think, will bring you great delight. RT @blackfilm Tim Blake Nelson's #Anesthesia is very powerful from veterans to newcomers. Another fab acting from Kristen Stewart. RT @duvalheather Well that was a lot of crying. Kristen was fucking incredible & heartbreaking. #Anesthesia Kristen has a bigger part than I expected. She nailed it though. Had very intense & poignant scenes Great movie overall. I cried through most of it and laughed pretty hard in some other parts. Definitely another movie you leave with a heavy feeling. Has romantic aspects & funny moment though. Makes you think. Bring tissues, prepare to laugh & cry, watch Kristen be awesome & love Sam Waterston. Yeah. Kristen and Sams scenes were my favorite. They stand out the most in my mind. I really liked Kristens introduction as Sophie. Sets up her character nicely. I felt like there were characters I hated and it made my love for Sophie stronger bc of that. She's a fragile being. SO MANY FICS COULD BE MADE WITH HER CHARACTER THOUGH. The angst level is perfect. RT @MissLaura317 Exhausted but totally worth the trip up. Such lovely ppl here in NYC, lovely film fests too. #Anesthesia was great! Totally lost it when she cried during her monologue. GUH. Heart wrenching. A huge thank you to itsoktobeyou.org for putting everything in order :p