The sophomore film from the director after 1999’s critically acclaimed black-and-white indie sleeper JUDY BERLIN (starring Edie Falco, Madeline Kahn, Barbara Barrie, Anne Meara, Julie Kavner, and more), took Mendelsohn and his producer ten years to be. able to afford this two hundred thousand dollar follow-up endeavor. Though this time shot in color, much like JUDY BERLIN, 3 BACKYARDS – which also stars Edie Falco – is set in Long Island and plays, as intended by the filmmaker, like something closer to a collection of short stories woven together than a traditional filmic three-act narrative. And since, obviously, “traditional” isn’t a word one most often associates with the films of Elias Koteas, it makes sense that he was immediately onboard.
Revolving around a group of neighbors along with the people they encounter over the course of an initially average but ultimately pivotal day, while not every story in BACKYARDS fully works, the scenes involving Koteas have stayed with me ever since I first saw it. As John, a hardworking but existentially adrift family man whose marriage to the always terrific Kathryn Erbe is on the rocks, Koteas gives a largely quiet, understated performance that again, makes the most out of the empathy we see in those eyes.
Torn between the love he feels for his young daughter and wanting to put some distance between the problems he’s been having with his wife, he leaves for a business trip in the early hours of the morning, only to discover when he arrives at the airport that his flight’s been canceled. Understandably frustrated yet unable to be re-booked until the next day, he heads home almost on autopilot but then does a curious thing when he turns down his street.
Calling his house from his cellphone, he begins to talk to the daughter he adores who’s home sick from school as though he were phoning her from the plane. Parking his car just off the end of his driveway to use the trees and bushes to obstruct it from sight, he sneaks onto his own property to observe the young girl drawing in his office as they speak, gently chiding his “Snoopy” for using his “Good pens.” Looking down at her with paternal pride and affection through a large window, suddenly the tenor of the call changes when Erbe gets on the line from above after doing battle with their washing machine.
Primarily caught between the two windows like a middle aged Romeo – upper and lower – which is a visual representation of his conflicting sense of duty between perhaps sticking things out for the child or ending it with his wife, he soon backs up carefully in the yard to watch Erbe as they talk. Confused by the sudden call and his evidently much lighter mood, she tells her husband, “I don’t know who the hell I’m talking to,” which reinforces the space between him and them as he retreats deeper into the yard, ends the call, and goes to kill time at the airport hotel, and figure things out.
Although that contains perhaps the most dialogue that Koteas has in the entirety of 3 BACKYARDS, in the film’s even more affecting scene that also in effect, stands as the true test of an actor to study both what they do and how well they listen when they have nothing to say, he remains silent. Observing a young beautiful African immigrant in a blue dress who keeps crossing his path (played by future BLACK PANTHER star Danai Gurira), he settles into the booth preparing to either eat his feelings or finally develop an appetite for life by ordering two things at a local diner. But then his own problems are soon forgotten as he looks beyond himself to see the woman arrive, nervous, flustered, and late for a job interview.
Seated in the booth behind her, as a white middle class, middle-aged male going through his own existential crisis, he makes a few harshly judgmental inferences about her plight and demeanor which bluntly appear in pencil in a crossword puzzle he fills in with the The word “dumb” followed by a question mark as well as “poor.” But the longer he watches her, again, and just as before with his wife and daughter, he softens. She becomes less a sociological study and more like someone that family man John feels intuitively protective of as the diner’s manager and head waitress treat her with rudeness, unchecked internal racism, and suspicion.
Victorious at first as she’s offered the job and informed she’ll start that night, the visibly relieved and thrilled young woman turns around in her booth to beam at Koteas and shyly put her fist up, her infectious smile inspiring him to mirror hers as well . But then as the head waitress comes back and prods Gurira for more specifics about her past work history and ability to juggle multiple tables at once, we mostly see the action play out in Koteas’ eyes. Looking on in horror like a passerby driving by a car crash that just took place on the side of the highway not with CRASH’s Vaughan-like interest but rather humane concern, John is unable to help or look away.
Using a rack focus as the tension builds to shift perspective between the two tables, the shot then changes to show Gurira adjusting the collar on her cardigan from behind, pulling it up higher on her neck as a self-soothe, almost like she wishes to hide under the fabric like blankets on her bed at the end of the day, alone in her humiliation. Turning not to the right this time but left, instead of meeting Koteas’ eyeline, she stares out the window, blank and resigned. Perhaps feeling like he is accidentally seeing someone whom he shouldn’t naked, vulnerable, and finding it hard to know what to do – especially when he sees her leave a few quarters as a tip for her “free” coffee – he bolts from his seat, goes to the parking lot and immediately checks his wallet. Locating two fifties there, despite his wife’s verbal concern about money on the phone hours earlier, he removes the bills to give them to Gurira, we assume, but gets so distracted by Erbe’s voicemail on his phone that he doesn’t hear the young woman from the diner leave, and isn’t sure how to proceed until it’s too late.
Breathless and searching, the range of emotions that we see in these two sequences of listening and observing not only reinforces Koteas’ power as an actor but also tells us more about John than any expositional info-dump conversational exchange ever could. Easily the most compelling character and plotline in this admittedly otherwise meandering film, his work in 3 BACKYARDS ranks among the very best film performances in his entire career.
Intriguingly, it also pulls from the same well of empathy he culled from in Egoyan’s THE ADJUSTER, only now nineteen years later, he’s using not his words and body as a young seducer to soothe those in pain but instead his eyes, heart, and soul . And while in that film, fire was only a catalyst for him to look outward and away from his family in order to tend to his flock as a very unorthodox Noah, this time, tragedy, and pain make him look inward to see what he should do to evaluate his life, self, and take care of his own household first.
Now, it seems, he’s a true adult who’s seen and done enough to know that without being right in your own life, you’re no good to anyone else. And while filmmakers keep finding themselves seduced by the weaponry of those eyes, it’s the unusual combination of their gaze along with his and ours – ever-evolving as he goes through the wars (Malick’s and otherwise) – that continues to make Elias Koteas such a riveting actor to watch.