Don is a recent widower devastated by the loss of his wife. On the day of her funeral, he attempts to attend to the various errands and tasks of the occasion, like getting soup for his father.
But as Don goes about his day, he discovers that even the simplest activities prove difficult in the thicket of his grief. He faces indifference, insensitivity and the selfishness of people as he tries to carry the burden of his pain. And just when he reaches his breaking point, he's faced with the ultimate challenge.
Written and directed by Grant Lafferty, this short dramedy achieves a high-wire act of tone and emotion. As the storytelling follows its grieving, heartbroken main character, it traces Don's interactions with the world at large and discovers a world indifferent to suffering and devoid of empathy. It's bleak and pessimistic, as we observe Don as he navigates his way through a pageantry of self-absorption and selfishness. But it adds levity to its dark worldview with a wry, deadpan tone and creative execution.
There's a meticulous deliberateness to almost all aspects of the film, from the spare yet vivid dialogue to the dark, weighty images rich with moody colors and shadows to the steadfast pacing. The look and feel have sadness and melancholy that reflect Don's emotions, with a slower pace that feels like the depression he seems to be falling in.
But even as Don's emotions escalate, the rhythms of the film remain the same, as evidenced in a sad but hilarious scene where Don is trying to buy soup for his father-in-law. The hostile cashier refuses to sell it to Don because the soup isn't on sale until later in the day. As Don gets upset, the cashier refuses to acknowledge Don's special circumstances and emotions. The comedy comes from the counter clerk's fierce commitment to not selling Don the soup he wants until the proper time. The tragedy is that the world simply doesn't care that Don is falling apart.
This central theme guides Don's other interactions in the film, and each slight and offense piles up. Actor Michael Mau is the emotional heart of the film, and plays Don's grief with empathy, like a fog that he can barely see out of. As the story proceeds, he grows increasingly distressed and outraged as he confronts more and more examples of humanity's lack of compassion, which only compounds his sadness. It's hard not to feel for Don as he deals with the worst day of his life and to understand his rage and meltdown when confronted with the biggest outrage yet.
"A Man Departed" has shades of the Coen brothers in its deft blend of dry comedy with thorny human emotions, creating a character experiencing intense emotional distress and a world so mired in their self-absorption that we lose sight of humanity. It's ultimate a portrait of grief, and how isolating and lonely of an experience it can be. The loss of a loved one is already hard enough. But "A Man Departed" also captures how the lack of acknowledgment and kindness in the outside world adds to the pain and alienation, leaving those experiencing grief feeling like islands cut off from the rest of humanity. Luckily, Don finds some sense of acknowledgment and understanding in the strangest of places, and some respite from an uncaring, brutal world, where we ourselves are the bright spots of compassion in a world lacking in it.