On A Home at the End of the World

Featuring Colin Farrell (Total Recall), A Home at the End of the World is a film with a screenplay adapted by Michael Cunningham based on his 1990 novel of the same name. I have always found it to be a very good film. According to the Ten Years Ago blog post on the film:

A Home at the End of the World isn’t anybody’s masterpiece, but it’s a thought-provoking movie. I would have said the same thing walking out of the theater ten years ago, with some change in the thoughts provoked. The film is based on Michael Cunningham’s 1990 novel of the same title; Cunningham also wrote the screenplay (his first), with direction by Tony winner Michael Mayer (whose non-stage directing resumé includes Flicka, several episodes of “Smash,” and “Hatfields & McCoys”; you can’t say the man’s not versatile). I was on a serious Cunningham kick following the 2002 movie version of his novel The Hours, so I had read A Home at the End of the World in the past year or so. I didn’t reread it for this review, but my recollection is that the movie is largely faithful, though inevitably streamlined.

Even so, the plot’s a bit involved, so here’s a refresher: The two central characters are Jonathan and Bobby (played in the early part of the movie by Harris Allan and Erik Smith, respectively), who become friends on the first day of high school in 1970s Cleveland. Bobby has lost his brother and his mother by the time he and Jonathan meet; his father dies before they graduate. Their friendship begins with listening to records and smoking weed and evolves, with no dialogue, into a relationship that includes sex. Jonathan goes off to college, but Bobby stays behind for several years living with Jonathan’s parents as he has done since the death of his father. Before long, both boys have reached 24 years old, and the teenage actors have been replaced by Dallas Roberts (of “The L Word,” “The Good Wife,” and the occasional movie) as Jonathan and Colin Farrell (of everything) as Bobby. Jonathan is living it up as a gay man in NYC in the 1980s (yes, you know what’s coming), living with his best friend, a bubbly, slightly older straight woman named Clare, a hat designer always sporting a new hair, makeup, or clothing style (played by Robin Wright then-also-Penn, obviously in view these days for her portrayal of a rather steelier Claire, the wife of Frank Underwood on “House of Cards”). It turns out that Jonathan and Clare have planned to have a child together even though they are not involved romantically, and that Jonathan still has feelings for Bobby. But Bobby and Clare begin sleeping together, so before the three really have time to settle into their friendship, things get complicated. My mother always told me three was a bad number. She was right. Jonathan soon gets fed up and goes to his parents in Arizona. His father, though (played by Matt Frewer, lately Dr. Leekie on Orphan Black), soon dies of the respiratory condition that sent him to Arizona in the first place. When Bobby and Clare come west for the funeral, Clare reveals that she is pregnant by Bobby. Suddenly everything changes: the three of them decide to move to upstate New York (Woodstock, in fact – Clare had been to the legendary concert) and raise the baby together. They hold things together for a while. The baby is born. Bobby starts a restaurant called The Home Café, at which he works as the chef and Jonathan works as a waiter, while Clare stays home to take care of the baby. Bobby and Clare continue sleeping together. While Clare becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her role as traditional stay-at-home mom in this supposedly non-traditional arrangement, Jonathan discovers telltale spots on his body that clearly forebode AIDS. He tells Bobby but not Clare. Ultimately Clare can’t take it anymore and leaves for good with the baby. Jonathan and Bobby stay on together, but Bobby knows of Jonathan’s condition. The movie ends before Jonathan dies, but we know what is coming.

Cunningham’s story was damned progressive in 1990, and it was unconventional in 2004 and 2014, too. As far as I know, hardly anyone was even talking about marriage equality in 1990. And in 2004, back in good ol’ Oregon where I grew up, “we” passed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage even though we went for Kerry. I was still going to a high school where they pretended homosexuality didn’t exist at all; for real, they wouldn’t let our English teacher show us Far From Heaven, solely because homosexuality was a theme. If only we don’t tell them, they’ll NEVER find out! Obviously, things have changed. Ten years later, Oregon is scrambling to pass gay marriage in November because they’re embarrassed that Washington beat them to it. And there are plenty of cultural and legal indications that the U.S. and many parts of the world more generally are becoming far more willing to consider gay rights.

And yet. That’s not actually what A Home at the End of the World is about. Nobody’s trying to get married, for one thing, and I know many people who are upset that marriage has become the banner gay-rights issue in recent years. No, this movie is more about interpersonal structures more generally, and about the cobbling together of a family. I could imagine someone who has had successful open relationships objecting that this movie seems like fear-mongering; better not try it, since somebody’s bound to get hurt. But A Home at the End of the World isn’t ultimately about that. It isn’t ultimately about sex, for one thing. In the end, the trio doesn’t fall apart because Jonathan isn’t sleeping with anyone. It falls apart because Clare feels like the odd man out emotionally, and because she gets stuck with most of the baby tasks while Jonathan and Bobby are both away from home working too much. Because the delicate emotional and practical balance of the home doesn’t work for her. They’re trying to make a functional home, not just a relationship. Needing to match up the sexual orientations is part of this trio’s problem, certainly; since it turns out that Clare had been hopelessly in love with Jonathan through much of their friendship, that means that both Jonathan and Clare struggle with romantic and sexual love for the one of the trio who doesn’t/can’t reciprocate it. But that problem is one they can get past; Jonathan moves into the house in Woodstock knowing it’ll be Bobby and Clare in one bed and him in another, and Clare is willing to pursue the relationship with Bobby that she originally wanted with Jonathan. Finding love isn’t nearly as difficult or as complicated as making a home.

In fact, there’s no shortage of love. Something I really like about this movie is that the three main characters seem genuinely to care about each other. (The apparent lack of genuine affection is the main reason “Girls” drives me crazy.) They come through in times of bereavement and enjoy each other’s company. The script suddenly gets funny when Clare announces her pregnancy and the three make their plans for choosing and setting up a house. For several minutes, we are reminded of how well these three people can fit together. They reassure each other throughout the story (as I recall Cunningham doing throughout the novel as well) that each one of the three is essential to the balance of the group. Speaking of love, I have to comment on Sissy Spacek as Alice, Jonathan’s mother. She gives a beautifully understated performance; as a midcentury suburban housewife, Alice keeps most of her feelings to herself, but Spacek always lets just enough seep through that you get the sense could have had her own movie. One day when the boys are teenagers, she overhears them playing “Desiree” and walks in to listen. Bobby, now without his own mother, has always been affectionate with Alice. In this moment, while she stands in the doorway with a laundry basket, he offers her a hit from the joint the boys are sharing. After the shock and the sense of motherly responsibility wear off, she says “Don’t tell your father” and takes one, and pretty soon the three are dancing together. Jonathan is of course mortified at first, but soon it feels natural – a little awkward, but natural. A few scenes later, Alice stumbles on Bobby and Jonathan kissing in the car. Nothing is said at the time, but later that night, Bobby finds her in the kitchen making a pie. She tells him she doesn’t know what to say to him, and he offers to move out. Instead of responding directly, she asks if he’d like to learn how to make a pie. He gives a surprised smile and says yes (and soon becomes a professional baker). This scene is one of my favorites in the movie. At first they’re standing around the kitchen several feet apart and without making much eye contact. They genuinely don’t know how to behave, but they love each other. I like that they don’t make Alice into a “cool” hippie mom; she isn’t so sure about what the boys are doing, but the fact that she loves them wins out. Within minutes, her hands are guiding Bobby’s over the rolling pin, and she has given him a livelihood.

Although there is never really any sexual tension between Alice and Bobby, she is certainly Clare’s precursor as something of a third wheel to Bobby and Jonathan. Then again, once Clare enters the picture, it’s often up for debate exactly which one of the three is the third wheel. It’s significant that, not having seen this movie for several years, I couldn’t remember which one of the trio bowed out. What kinds of love matter most? Who do you want to build a home with, if your best friend and your lover are two different people? Watching it in 2014, this movie reminded me of Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids (2011), in which a heterosexual but not (initially) romantic pair of friends decide to have a baby together. One of them gives a rather rousing speech defending that decision, essentially saying, she’s my best friend, she shares my values, we know each other inside and out, so why in the world shouldn’t we build a life together? It’s a damn good question. Looking back at the people I’ve known over the last few years, I honestly couldn’t say those things about a single person I’ve dated or wanted to date. But I could say them about several friends. I’m not on the brink of making some sort of arrangement, but having dipped my toe into some different kinds of love, I can understand why Jonathan might decide to move to the middle of nowhere with Bobby and Clare instead of staying in the city where romantic partners are everywhere.

I found myself getting impatient with Bobby this time around, a reaction I don’t remember having ten years ago. Back then, I mostly just thought it was really interesting that they were trying to live in a group of three at all. But this time it grated on me a little bit when Bobby so frequently said things like “No, it’s fine, this is great, things are perfect just the way they are.” Bobby’s older brother, before his dramatic and visually striking death by running through a very clean sliding glass door at the opening of the movie, always reassured Bobby about things like drugs and sex by saying “There’s nothing to fear, man.” I mentioned the thing about the death by glass door, though, right? The truth is that there’s a hell of a lot to fear. And obviously, as evidenced by the fact that both Jonathan and Clare give up at certain points, the arrangement isn’t perfect.

Now, I know that there’s a good reason people say “Oh, no, it’s great.” It’s an implied response to comments like “You can’t do that” or “That isn’t what people do” or “That’s weird.” And I think a lot of us today, even more than ten years ago, are very invested in saying “This isn’t traditional, but it’s fine. It’s perfect. It’s what I want.” Because we don’t want to be those conventional naysayers. And sometimes it really is fine. But sometimes you have moments like Clare’s, when she realizes, “I think maybe I’m not this unusual. Just my hair.” Yes, in fact, you can have wacky hair and want a traditional family. You can be gay and otherwise conventional. You can be a hang-loose pot lover and a virgin (as Bobby is when he moves to New York). You can love two people at once in completely different ways. But the fact that you can isn’t the end of the story. It isn’t necessarily perfect. It’s hard. For one thing, your wacky hair seems to signify that you are that unusual, both to other people and to yourself. Just before they start sleeping together, Clare persuades Bobby to let her give him a haircut on the grounds that his hippie hair doesn’t match who he really is: “If you walk around looking like someone other than who you are you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with someone else’s whole life.” Bobby protests, but he lets her cut his hair. I hate to say it, but Clare has a point, as her own realization later in the movie bears out. I had a conversation this summer with a fellow femme-y lesbian friend about how we’d both thought off and on about cutting our hair short so that it would be easier to meet people. Neither of us has done it. For me, it’s partly because I have a hang-up about the shape of my chin (oh, shut up, everybody’s got something), but largely because I get mad when I think about there being a specific way to “look gay.” If that were the reason I did it, chopping my hair would be no different from, say, a straight girl not cutting her hair because her boyfriend likes it long. The haircut doesn’t ultimately change much for Bobby, but Clare is preemptively talking about herself. Her hair ought to signify someone who’s ready for anything, even a household in Woodstock with a baby and two men who love her very differently, but she discovers to her own surprise that it doesn’t. Sure, you can wear your hair any way you want, and you can live with whomever you want, but that doesn’t mean it will work the way you planned or make you happy.

Ultimately the home these three friends try to make doesn’t last. But you get to the end of the movie feeling glad that they tried, because the attempt was true to the way they felt about each other. This is a far cry, thankfully, from a ménage-a-trois, sexy partner-swapping kind of movie. It’s really just about a handful of lonely people who try to make a home together. A Home at the End of the World doesn’t have the beauty or power of The Hours, which I would also say of the novels on which they are based (both by Michael Cunningham; check out his latest novel, The Snow Queen, which I’ve just started and already found to be a pleasure). I would have liked to see more visual attention to place, since the movie is so deeply about making a home and finding a place, and since there’s so much variety in the places they try (Cleveland, New York City, Arizona, and finally Woodstock). The soundtrack of ’70s and ’80s music is nice, and tone-setting; someone who knows more about the music of that era than I do would be needed to say anything more than that. I have to confess that watching Robin Wright in this movie mostly made me want to watch “House of Cards”; she just doesn’t have as much to work with here. Colin Farrell is rather one-note but charming as Bobby, always gentle and wide-eyed, like he’s a little dazed that he’s still around. The young actors who played the characters as teenagers successfully conveyed the combined awkwardness and joy of adolescence; I was sorry to learn from IMDb that neither has gotten a great deal of work since then. But Spacek was excellent, as I’ve said, and all the actors do a nice job of making it seem they’ve known each other intimately for a long time; it’s an ensemble you believe in, even though it isn’t a very vivid one. I wouldn’t mind seeing A Home at the End of the World as a play, actually. It isn’t spectacular, but the passing of ten years absolutely has not made it obsolete. Two hours spent watching a movie that makes you think as much as I have the past week about how you cobble together a family and a home is two hours well spent.

Additionally, according to the Queer Culture Collection blog post, “Queer Culture In A Home At The End Of The World“:

A Home At The End Of The World is a movie that was released in 2004 and directed by Michael Mayer. Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Cunningham wrote the screenplay as well as the novel that the film was based off of in 1990. The film was shot in New York City, Toronto, Phoenix and Schomberg and its premiere was at the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Cunningham is a gay novelist and lecturer who wrote about what it was like to be a child in the 60’s and 70’s as well as an adult in the 80’s. The movie spans about 12 years and follows the lives of two best friends­— Bobby Morrow and Jonathon Glover. Bobby has been through many hardships in his life. He loses both his parents and his older brother and turns to Jonathon and Jonathon’s family for comfort and friendship.

Jonathon and Bobby develop a sexual and emotional relationship in their youth. They’re reunited in young adulthood when Bobby needs a place to stay. Jonathon lives with a colorful bohemian named Clare whom he is very in love with. However, Jonathon ends up falling for Bobby, his first and eternal love, all over again. The three roommates end up developing a three-way relationship and having a child together. Clare eventually moves away with baby Rebecca and leaves Bobby and Jonathon to themselves. Bobby cares for Jonathon in his last days while he dies prematurely of AIDS.

I chose to include this film in our digital archive because it shows what it was like to be homosexual as a child and having parents that aren’t necessarily accepting. I feel that this is relevant to our class because most of us are still young enough that our parents have some sort of dictation over our lives, and coming out might cause significant problems in our relationships.

This film represents a different type of queer culture. The beginning took place in the 60’s and 70’s when people were a lot less accepting over homosexuality than they are today. While Jonathon’s mother wasn’t necessarily unaccepting when she caught Jonathon and Bobby together, she was definitely less than happy. This speaks volumes coming from a mother who does drugs with her son; she’s clearly very open but still was uneasy about her child’s homosexuality.

To quote The Straight Mind by Monique Wittig, “These discourses of heterosexuality oppress us in the sense that they prevent us from speaking unless we speak in their terms. Everything which puts them into question is at once disregarded as elementary.” This really sums up how I think Jonathon’s mother acted. She sees heterosexuality as the norm and is confused that her son is straying from it.

Gender was represented in this film through Carlton. His part in the film was brief, but he broke away from gender norms. He wore feminine clothing, had long hair and talked about how beautiful the world was. Sex is represented in this film through Bobby and Jonathon exploring their sexuality together when they were young. Jonathon is beginning to come out as homosexual, but it seems as though Bobby is just open to everything. Even when they’re adults and Clare says in regards to Bobby, “The good ones are always gay,” Jonathon insists that Bobby isn’t gay.

This film clearly represents history well since the time period is set between 35 and 55 years ago. As I previously mentioned, it demonstrates how much harder it could be to be a homosexual person during a time period where things weren’t so acceptable. As far as the contemporary goes, some things really never change. Parents are still often upset about finding out that their child is gay. People still struggle to define their sexuality like Bobby. And people still go through tragedies and hardships, lean on their friends and come out better for it.


According to Roger Ebert:

“A Home at the End of the World” tells the story of Bobby Morrow, who at 7 sees his adored older brother walk into a glass door and die, who lost his mother even earlier, who finds his father dead in bed, who solemnly announces to his best friend, “I’m the last of my kind.” Soon he is living with the friend’s family, so comfortably that the mother eventually has to tell him, “You can’t just live with us forever.” By then he is 24.

Bobby is played as an adult by Colin Farrell in a performance that comes as an astonishment. Farrell is a star who has appeared mostly in action pictures that reflect his bad-boy offscreen image. Here he plays a quiet, complex, unconventional character, a young man who has been deeply hurt, who fears abandonment, and whose guiding principle has become, “I just want everybody to be happy.”

Bobby is sweet. Everybody likes him. But does anybody know him? He has such a need to please, to reassure, to comfort, to heal, that it is hard to say what might comfort and heal him. We attend to this character more than to most, because we like him but find him a mystery.

His best friend is Jonathan (played as an adult by Dallas Roberts), an outsider in high school until Bobby befriends him, gives him pot for the first time and shares his dead brother’s philosophy, which is basically that all is good, life is wonderful, so chill. Jonathan is clearly gay from an early age, and as the two boys share a bed, they eventually share a shy sexual experience. Jonathan moves to New York and Bobby eventually follows, joining a household that also includes Clare (Robin Wright Penn). She is older, experiments with bizarre hair-coloring strategies, embraces the unconventional and eventually embraces Bobby. He confesses he is a virgin and may not be “adept”; she calls him “junior” and takes charge.

So is Bobby actually straight? “Bobby’s not gay,” Jonathan muses. “It’s hard to say what Bobby is.” Hard, because Bobby is much less interested in sex than in helping other people to feel better. That’s why the filmmakers were correct in their well-publicized decision to leave out Farrell’s scene of full frontal nudity; the movie is not about the size or function of Bobby’s penis, but about its friendliness. Consider his muted flirtation with Jonathan’s mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek). He gives her pot, dances with her, turns her on to Laura Nyro, frees her to accept Jonathan’s lifestyle and to wonder what directions her own life might have taken, if she had not been so conventional, suburban and married.

“A Home at the End of the World,” directed by Michael Mayer, is based on a novel and screenplay by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours. Once again he is fascinated by very particular kinds of unconventional households, by nontraditional family groups that do not even fall into the usual nontraditional categories. One might think Bobby, Jonathan and Clare were all gay, but no: Jonathan has an active homosexual life, but Clare is straight, and so concerned with remaining free that sex is approached warily. When she and Bobby have a daughter, their household makes a move toward a more conventional arrangement, and then backs off.

There is also the question of how Jonathan feels about their little family. He loves Bobby, and his many sexual partners are a way to escape that inescapable fact. Bobby loves him, but in the same way he loves everybody. Jonathan sometimes feels Bobby is elbowing him out of his own life: “You can be the son and I’ll be the best friend.” Clare studies Bobby and is baffled: “You can live in the suburbs, the East Village, the country — it just doesn’t make any difference to you, does it?” By now they have moved to Woodstock, bought a little frame house and opened a cafe in town.

The movie exists outside our expectations for such stories. Nothing about it is conventional. The three-member household is puzzling not only to us, but to its members. We expect conflict, resolution, an ending happy or sad, but what we get is mostly life, muddling through. Some days are good and other days are bad.

When Bobby makes the most important decision of the film, we know why he makes it, but Clare doesn’t, and it’s hard to say about Jonathan. Bobby doesn’t explain. He makes it because one of them needs him more than the other; there is really no thought of himself.

Plots in fiction are usually based on need, greed, fear and guilt. Even love plays out in that context. All Bobby has is the need to please, in order to assure himself of a place where he belongs. A home. Colin Farrell is astonishing in the movie, not least because the character is such a departure from everything he has done before. Charlize Theron’s leap of faith in “Monster” comes to mind, although Farrell’s work here is less risky and lower-key. It’s rare, in a movie that sidesteps melodrama, for a character to fascinate us with his elusiveness.

“Is there anything you can’t do?” one of them asks him.

“I couldn’t be alone,” he says.




2 thoughts on “On A Home at the End of the World

  1. Pingback: On Daredevil | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Minority Report | The Progressive Democrat

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