Five years ago, the writer-director Rodrigo Garcia made an extraordinarily assured debut with "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her," a movie as intriguing as its title. The film, an omnibus of vignettes about a loosely interlocking group of women, boasted a fantastic cast -- including Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Calista Flockhart and Cameron Diaz in a startlingly good performance -- and it showed enormous promise, an accomplishment for which Garcia was rewarded by having the film dumped by the studio that bought it and having its only life on pay cable.
Happily, Garcia is back with a movie that fully delivers on the early promise of "Things You Can Tell." The new film, "Nine Lives," revisits old territory with many members of the original ensemble. And, with redoubled confidence and fluency, Garcia has once again plumbed deep reserves of pain, humor and complexity in his actresses to create a moving and often wry examination of contemporary manners. In nine brief, sharply observed scenes -- which have the texture, depth and impact of little one-act plays -- Garcia eavesdrops on characters in various stages of extremis having to do with mortality, despair and disappointment. The result is a cumulative one, as these moments each make their indelible mark, resulting in a gentle, heartbreaking portrait of connection, loss and continuity. (It is interesting, but not surprising, to know that Garcia is the son of the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
"Nine Lives" opens in prison, as Sandra (Elipidia Carrillo) dutifully swabs a corridor floor with a heavy mop. Although it's never clear why Sandra is incarcerated, the audience learns volumes about her in just a few economical moments -- that she's on such good behavior that even the guards give her a bad time, that she's devoted to her young daughter and that beneath her obedient surface lie the protective instincts of a far more feral creature. From Sandra's story, Garcia moves on to eight other women, each in a prison of her own: There's the pregnant, well-heeled Diana (Robin Wright Penn), who runs into a former lover at the supermarket; the fierce, furious Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who has come home for a final confrontation with her stepfather; Sonia (Holly Hunter), whose steady relationship is anything but; Samantha (Amanda Seyfreid), a teenager who swings like a pendulum between two estranged parents; Lorna (Amy Brenneman), who experiences a highly charged encounter with her ex-husband at a funeral; Ruth (Sissy Spacek), who is teetering on the edge of an affair; Camille (Kathy Baker), who is moments away from a mastectomy; and finally Maggie (Glenn Close), who sums up the entire movie while visiting a grave in the quietly devastating final scene.
Some of the characters' stories overlap, but "Nine Lives" doesn't go in for "Crash"-like contrivances. Rather, it possesses a rare, unforced spontaneity that gives each character time to come fully into her own. Each scene is an uninterrupted take that lasts between 10 and 14 minutes, a crowning technical achievement but one that is primarily about the performance rather than Garcia's obvious filmmaking gifts (he started out as a cinematographer, which accounts for his unerring sense of framing and movement and composition).
As beautifully written as these scenes are, they become utterly transfixing as we watch some of the screen's most accomplished actresses undergo seismic psychic and physical transformations on screen, whether it's Penn's crumpling face as she hides behind a shelf to break into silent tears, Baker's bitter, terrified portrayal of a survivor or the radiant Close coming to terms with what seems to be a long-endured grief.
"Nine Lives" is without doubt a woman's picture, but the men of the piece deserve special credit, especially Ian McShane, William Fichtner, Joe Mantegna and Aidan Quinn, who as a pompous but kind "other man" somehow channels both Rock Hudson and Tony Randall. Quinn delivers a few of the many witty moments in "Nine Lives," a film whose acute attention to life's details includes as much humor as pathos. This absorbing, lyrical, seamless group portrait is both wrenching and a joy to watch. It confirms that Garcia is a filmmaker whose gifts of observation, discretion and compassion are to be welcomed and treasured.
Nine Lives (115 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated R for profanity, brief sexual content and some disturbing images.