Reign Over Me
When Grief Breaks a Man

Often when I attend promotional screenings of upcoming movies, the audience detracts from the experience. Cellophane rustling, popcorn chomping, and personal commentary tracks frequently disrupt and distract, much to the detriment of the movie (particularly if the film itself isn’t very interesting).

At one screening recently, however, you could hear a pin drop in the standing-room-only downtown Seattle theater. Mike Binder, writer and director of Reign Over Me, held the audience completely captive with both an astounding story and outstanding performances on all counts.

While there have been several films in recent years with either major plots or subplots based on the 9/11 tragedies, Binder opts for a more subtle yet more deeply moving approach, using the attacks as a way to explore how people grieve, how they handle tragedy, and how they try to help each other when nothing can take away the pain.

Sandler as Charlie in Reign Over Me

Charlie Fineman and Alan Johnson roomed together in dental school before parting ways to forge their private practices. A decade or so later, Johnson notices a disheveled Fineman tooling around New York City on a motorized scooter, and it becomes clear that the loss of his wife and three daughters on 9/11 has taken its toll in more ways than Johnson can possibly imagine. Disturbed by his former colleague’s unemployment and apparently stunted emotional life, Johnson sets out on a mission to help his friend recover whatever life he can.

Reign Over Me explores the nature of grief in a profoundly moving way—and not just for the one grieving, but for those who good-heartedly, if misguidedly, want to help. Fineman, having lost his entire family in an instant, has become a recluse, living off of the government payoff, letting his dental license lapse amid video games, grown-up toys, eternal kitchen remodeling, and loud music. Obviously desperate to keep himself from thinking about his loss, he refuses to remember anything—including close friends—that might evoke memories of his once-happy past. Everyone around him is desperate to help, yet often they make matters worse—staging “unexpected” meetings with psychiatrists, attempting to ask leading questions—things we all do when we don’t know what to do. His in-laws even attempt to have him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital under the pretense of helping him come to grips, which begs the ultimate question of whose grief—his or their own—they are really trying to assuage.

I have to be honest: I am not a fan of Adam Sandler in general. His humor escapes me, and while I can understand how others find it funny, I just haven’t seen much skill to what he has done comedically. In Reign Over Me, however, Sandler deftly handles the pieces of a broken man, stunningly portraying the pain, the dissociation, the desperation of the bereaved. Don Cheadle, as his somewhat hen-pecked and otherwise trapped friend, likewise shines in his portrayal of a man pulled between his own desires, professionally as well as personally. Jada Pinkett-Smith also contributes significantly to the ensemble as Johnson’s (perhaps unintentionally) overbearing but very loving wife.

But ultimately, the essential strength of the movie is in its meticulous balance between intensity and humor. The perfectly-timed laugh-lines never break the tension entirely—they just allow the audience a chance to exhale long and hard, in preparation for the continually rising conflict. Rarely can a writer/director walk the fine line between realistic human humor and irreverence for the subject matter with as much finesse as Binder has done here. Add to the fine writing a top-notch ensemble cast composed of big names who know that a great performance can only happen with a great team, and you have a winner.

From my perspective, the film makes a solid statement about humanity—its strengths and its weaknesses, its head and its heart. What we see in Reign are people who are broken—some more deeply and jaggedly than others—trying to mend each other. But broken isn’t necessarily as broken does, and sometimes the final product isn’t composed of all the pieces glued back into place. Sometimes the best we can do is tenderly hold the pieces together in our hands, and try to keep them safe from further harm.

Reign Over Me is rated R for “language and some sexual references.” I would add thematic elements to that as well, since death and naked grief are not always child-friendly. I do agree with the rating; unfortunately the anti-R audience will be missing a well-made and profoundly moving piece of art.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jenn attended a promotional screening of Reign Over Me.