On the way home from school one afternoon, a 10-year-old North Dakota boy named Wesley (newcomer Danny Murphy) stumbles upon a man (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, playing a character who is never given a name) passed out on the side of the road—bleeding, nearly frozen and clearly on the verge of dying. Wesley pulls the man to an abandoned barn next to his family’s rather isolated property, brings him food, medical supplies, blankets and anything else he may need to survive. As he continues his daily routine of going to school and being bullied relentlessly, Wesley learns that a terrible crime has been committed in a nearby town, leaving a handful dead and a suspect in the wind, one who may be injured himself.
Being a smart kid, Wesley figures out that his new friend is said suspect and that he may not be the nicest guy. But strangely, the two form a bond based on feeling like outsiders to the world at large, and they begin a partnership based on looking out for each other. Young Wesley is deaf (as is the actor who plays him) and he communicates via sign language that he, in turn, teaches Paul’s character. In return, Paul teaches Wesley how to stick up for himself, even if doing so means getting violent. Some of the lessons aren’t exactly appropriate but they instill just enough confidence in the boy that they seem to do the trick.
Wesley’s home is not an ideal place for a boy with his condition. His protective mother (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an absolute angel with Wesley and his younger sister. She’s learned sign language as well, and the three are clearly happy as a trio. Unfortunately, Wesley’s frequently absent father (Scoot McNairy) decides to come back from a spell working out of state at this moment, and becomes an additional (often drunk) burden on the family, particularly Wesley, whose deafness his father never bothered to adjust to. In fact, he sees the boy like a busted TV that you can just smack around a few times in order to get it working again.
As the man in the barn recuperates, Wesley sees their time together as something of a safe haven, even after a U.S. Marshal shows up at the family’s door looking for their missing suspect. Wesley doesn’t give up his new friend, but the law is naturally suspicious, and their small world becomes a race to see whether this stranger heals up quickly enough to leave or if the cops will come swooping in to capture or kill him.
The Parts You Lose marks the directing debut from Christopher Cantwell, the co-creator of one of my favorite series in recent memory, AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” (which featured McNairy and felt more like a long-form movie than a TV series). The bulk of the film is simply watching Paul and Murphy together, playing checkers, one teaching sign language to the other, or Paul teaching the kid how to fill his thermos up with coins and use it as a weapon against his bully. It’s a fascinating, slightly uncomfortable viewing experience, since we’re always afraid (as is Wesley in some moments) that this man’s paranoia about getting caught will get the boy hurt.
The film’s pacing is a bit slow, and there are periods where the drunk dad character feels more like a cliche domestic villain than an actual character, but I did like the moment where Paul’s character decides to teach McNairy a lesson about hitting his kid, even though leaving the barn means he runs the risk of getting caught. Overall, however, the film is an example of a beautifully crafted and photographed, low-key thriller that doubles as a terrific character study about marginalized people. For Aaron Paul admirers, consider this a worthy placeholder until his Breaking Bad movie El Camino is released soon on Netflix. This is one worth seeking out.
The film is now playing for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
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