Sight & Sound, March 1994
What´s Eating Gilbert Grape?
Endora, Iowa. Gilbert Grape lives with his mother Bonnie, two sisters and mentally retarded brother Arnie in the run-down house built by his father. His mother, who weighs 36 stone, has not left the house since her husband hanged himself in the cellar. Gilbert works in the local grocery store, whose clientele has mostly deserted to the supermarket on the outskirts of town. Gilbert has been having an affair for almost a year with Betty Carver, the wife of Endora´s insurance broker. During one of Gilbert´s many deliveries to the Carver household, Arnie, who has been left in the truck, climbs the gas tower in the centre of town. Gilbert coaxes him down, and meets Becky, who is traveling in a camper with her grandmother, among the onlookers. Gilbert´s routine is disrupted by Becky´s arrival. He fails to complete his brother´s evening bathing ritual, and returns in the early hours of the morning to find a shivering Arnie waiting for him in a stone cold tub. Gilbert also becomes less keen on his clandestine relationship with Betty Carver. After her husband is suddenly and inexplicably drowned in their children´s paddling pool, Betty tells Gilbert she is leaving town to start afresh. Meanwhile, Arnie climbs to the top of the gas tower again, and this time the police take him into custody. Observed by the curious local population, Gilbert´s mother stirs and goes to the police station to fetch back her son.
Becky and her grandmother are due to leave the following day after the grand opening of the new Burger Barn and Arnie´s eighteenth birthday. On the eve of the party Arnie, still traumated by the cold bath experience, lashes out as Gilbert tries to wash him, provoking his brother into hitting him. Gilbert sets out to leave town but changes his mind. Arnie visits Becky, who persuades him to conquer his fear of water by jumping into the stream near her camper. Gilbert then spends the night with Becky. The next day is Arnie´s birthday, and although Bonnie wants to remain out of sight, Gilbert persuades her to meet Becky before she leaves in the camper. At home, Bonnie decides she wants to go upstairs to her bedroom, where she has not ventured for years. She dies in her sleep, and is found by Arnie the next day. Rather than have her specially removed by a crane, the children cremate Bonnie and the house. A year later, Gilbert and Arnie wait by the roadside for Becky.
The subtitle for "What´s Eating Gilbert Grape" could be "Insignificance". Endora being the sort of town that jumped off life´s carousel long before the Big Dipper came along and made everything hazardous. The latent oddity of middle-American ordinariness is well-trodden ground, but here the point is not that Iowa has secret priest-holes of bizarre activity waiting to be prised open, but that it truly is monotonously normal. In "What´s Eating Gilbert Grape" things often seem strange the way they do in Jane Campion´s short "Passionless Moments": no one does much that is weird, it´s just framed or edited to look that way. The appeal of successful bizarre normality - a sort of fictional version of life in fly-on-the-wall documentaries - is that it is not given any hidden meaning, but remains inconsequential.
Difficult to pin down, the attraction of this in Lasse Hallström´s films is a matter of style. There are wry moments on incongruous juxtaposition, such as Ken Carver´s bovine head trampolining up from behind the garden hedge as Gilbert and Betty are getting down to a bit of illicit. Häagen Dasz-inspired passion, or Endora´s new mobile Burger Barn arriving just as Ken´s coffin is being laid to rest. Here, what´s humorous is the sequence of events, not simply the events themselves. "What´s Eating Gilbert Grape" is evocative in the way it draws - and draws on - minutiae, so the overall picture is the sum of accumulated detail. Bonnie Grape´s way of clutching her tub of popcorn with simultaneous resentment and possessiveness conveys more about her self-loathing and her defiance than any trite verbal exchange about why she slumped into obesity.
Like Hallsström´s earlier "My Life As A Dog", this is a film of sentiment that eschews sentimentality, despite the main storylines concerning Gilbert and his family and his relationship with the outsider Becky. There are moments ripe for cloying treatment, like Gilbert intense meaning-of-life conversation with Becky, first amid the haystacks at sunset, everything bathed in rich golden haloes, and second beside a campfire at night. If only Gilbert could fathom her cryptic, whimsical statements and questions. There´s an awareness of the dangers of being mawkish that ensures any mindless rhapsody is side-stepped, interrupted, deflated: a pragmatic approach to tearjerk material best summed up by the carefully unpatronising treatment of Arnie.
If there is any underpinning theme in "What´s Eating Gilbert Grape", it´s a notion of space. From the opening sequence, when the convoy of glistening silver campers bringing Becky into town snakes over the lazy hillside towards Gilbert and Arnie, there´s a sharp distinction made between the parochial day-to-day aimlessness of Endora, and the potential life elsewhere. When Gilbert drives out of town only to turn back as soon as he´s passed his farewell sign, he goes in search of Becky and tells her, "I´ve got nowhere to go". Beyond Endora there´s a vaste expanse and there´s nothing - Gilbert gazes out at that open space, while Arnie waves at each time he scales the heights of the gas tower. The reality of Endora, though, is something more akin to the world created by Bonnie, the lapsed matriarch of the Grape household, who has defined her space as being almost exclusively the inside of her house, shrouding herself in its confined bleakness. Whenever the despairing Gilbert tries to break away, something - such as Arnie running away - happens to pull him back.
"What´s Eating Gilbert Grape" is a beautiful, luxurious film that wears any solemn intention slightly. Its insignificance is finely drawn, creating a kaleidoscope of images and moments that, apropos of nothing much, are all-consuming. From Gilbert´s undertaker´s assistant friend using a bent spoon and an ashtray to back up his ´magic heart attack´ theory of how Ken Carver could have drowned in a paddling pool four inches deep, to Bonnie´s blancmange shape silhouetted against her drawn bedroom curtains as she tells Gilbert he´s her knight in a shimmering armour, it is the detail that explains the whole.
by Stella Bruzzi