Indie Classics: Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge
“Everybody’s fucked up, but nobody wants anybody else to think they are, but everybody knows they are anyway,” states Tommy Basilio (Steve Buscemi) in Trees Lounge. This line aptly describes all of the colorful characters in the film, most of all the protagonist, Tommy. Trees Lounge, Buscemi’s debut as writer/director of a feature-length film in which he also triples as the lead actor, is completely underrated. Largely well-reviewed by critics of all sorts, this is clearly a film that suffered from a lack of distribution and not being seen by enough audiences. This was one of the best indie films I have seen and has definitely become a contender for one of my favorite films.
Trees Lounge follows the protagonist, Tommy Basilio, as he goes about his life largely without purpose or direction after having lost his job as a mechanic for “borrowing” money from the shop and losing his girlfriend to the boss of that same shop. He lives above the local dive bar, the Trees Lounge, where he spends much of his time among a cast of characters equally as shiftless as himself. He floats between the bar crowd, among whom he doesn’t really want to belong (he is constantly claiming that he would change his ways if his life were different in certain ways) and his family/the family of his ex-girlfriend, among whom he seems to be the odd man out attracting either pity or disdain. The film follows his roundabout search for some sort of purpose, something meaningful in his life.
I enjoyed and was impressed by the film on several different levels. For Buscemi’s first film, and a fairly low budget film at that (only $1.3 million), I felt that it was very polished and worked with its limited budget rather than fighting against it. The shots were well-composed and carefully thought out. The camerawork was simple, relying for the most part on still shots in which the characters would walk out of the shot at the end rather than the camera following them continuously into the next shot. This was both an economically efficient way to shoot and an incredibly effective type of shot to use for this particular film, especially with the portraits of the various barflies like the old man (ostensibly a Korean War vet) drinking himself to death. The characterizations were impeccable; none of the characters (not even minor ones) felt flat or undeveloped. Every person seemed to have at least one small moment, one line, or one unusual quirk to give the viewer an idea of who they were. My personal favorite was Uncle Al the ice cream man having the children sing “the Uncle Al song” before they get their ice cream.
The film also featured several notable acting performances from the cast members. Steve Buscemi did not disappoint (especially if you happen to be a Buscemi fan like myself) and gave an impressively accurate portrayal of a self-destructive drunk/lost soul down to the mannerisms and the constant provision of excuses for his drinking, intermittent drug use and questionable behavior. The other cast member I was particularly drawn to was Chloe Sevigny (an actress I am typically not a huge fan of) as Debbie, the 17-year-old niece of Tommy’s ex with whom he has an accidental, inappropriate and misguided relationship. She played the part believably and helped to give the relationship between her character and Buscemi’s an innocence that kept it from becoming gratuitous.
All in all, Trees Lounge is a compelling story of a man trying to figure things out and an impressive first effort at writing/directing for Buscemi. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been seen by more people or received more acclaim. I would wholeheartedly recommend this film; it’s well worth 90 minutes of your time.