I have a friend who would happily watch a two-hour industrial film about warehouse safety if Wes Anderson directed it. That’s how deeply he’s convinced that the director’s vocabulary was created to speak to him especially. Every slow-motion scene set to a song from the ’60s, every fussy bit of dollhouse set design, every delicately composed static shot, every whooshing horizontal tracking shot, every deadpan exchange: My friend believes it’s his language Anderson is speaking. Even regarding the films he can admit are misfires, his devotion remains intact. His love is unconditional. It transcends petty distinctions between good and bad.
There may be fewer of us who see and hear in Bob Byington’s cinematic language that same sort of very personal familiarity, that sense of connectedness, but we exist. We’re a small cult, but an avid one.
Over the last decade, as Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater and the Duplass brothers have risen to Hollywood’s heights, their fellow Austinite Byington has remained just to the side of success, quietly shooting four features over the last seven years. He’s a marginal figure revered by those who’ve discovered him, but not quite able or willing to break into the mainstream. To fans, this obscurity is part of Byington’s appeal. We feel like we’re in on a secret.
Considering how compelling a filmmaker Byington is, his relegation to cult status must be due to the attitudes of his heroes, who are sarcastic, acerbic and contemptuous of just about everything. The title character, “RSO,” in Registered Sex Offender; Harmony in Harmony and Me; Max in Somebody Up There Likes Me—they all use sarcasm to keep the world at arm’s length and mockery as a tool of self-defense, lashing out and blowing off. Byington’s white, male, shaggy-headed hipsters live to provoke.
Larry, the hero of Byington’s latest feature, 7 Chinese Brothers, which had its world premiere last month at South by Southwest, is no different. Larry, played by Jason Schwartzman, is the perfect embodiment of the Byington protagonist: mocking, mordant and full of biting contempt for the world. Fired from his job at a chain Italian restaurant for stealing and boozing, Larry starts working at a nearby lube shop, where he shows his affection for his new boss the only way he knows how: by ceaselessly antagonizing her. He’s the same with his best friend, his co-workers, even his grandmother.
Arguably the most cynical of Byington’s films, 7 Chinese Brothers is a character study of a young man in a slow collapse of his own making. To Larry, social conventions are lies best lampooned or ignored—so what if they lead to compassion or intimacy or human connection? He dismisses everything that everyone else holds dear: work, sex, money, family, tradition. But his attacks are just masks for depression, a thousand and one mirrors deflecting light and love.
Somehow, despite Larry’s faults, we keep rooting for him. Much of the credit for this goes to Schwartzman, who proves once and for all that he’s incapable of being unlikable (though he’s trying his best). But making unsympathetic characters relatable is a skill Byington has been cultivating since 2008’s Registered Sex Offender, which dared viewers to not hate an unrepentant pedophile. What redeems Byington and his heroes is his idiosyncratically deadpan sense of humor and elliptical, episodic approach to storytelling—in other words, his singular voice. Byington defies any number of filmmaking conventions, such as, say, narrative arc. His movies are more like collections of ironic koans than stories, inscrutable shrugs that, taken together, add up to something meaningful, even if it’s hard to put your finger on just what the meaning might be.
It takes a particular talent and a special aesthetic conviction to devise your own language as a filmmaker and to call on that language in every one of your films, so that each is unmistakably yours. As a movie fan, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as entering the world of an artist who has accomplished this, who owns a distinctive voice that gets richer and more varied with each film. Bob Byington, quietly, and mostly under Hollywood’s radar, has spent the last decade constructing a universe of comic misanthropy that could be mistaken for no one else’s.