THE NEW YORKER
A Short Film About Hidden Agendas and Flashes of Danger
By Joshua Rothman
Thought the election was tense? Take a look at our newest Screening Room short, “The Mulberry Bush,” a short film written and directed by Neil LaBute. Two men—a suited-and-tied lonely luncher (Victor Slezak) and a younger, wiry guy in a Carhartt hoodie (J. J. Kandel)—sit down next to each other in Central Park. They get to talking about sports and the weather, then begin sharing details about their families. You might think that these strangers are unusually talkative. You might notice the presence of what the youngsters call “side-eye.” You may suspect that one of the men isn’t really talking about the weather—he’s “talking about the weather.” He has a hidden agenda. There’s something he wants to say or do: his body is saturated with barely restrained energy. Let’s just say that “The Mulberry Bush” isn’t a film about two guys in a park. It’s about pain, guilt, and how we respond to the threat of danger.
Before it was a film, “The Mulberry Bush” was a short play, starring the same actors as the film version. I didn’t see it onstage, but I suspect it’s better this way. Although “The Mulberry Bush” feels stagey, its staginess is part of the story. The characters are afraid, and they defend themselves by performing stronger, scarier, sadder versions of themselves. Like actors, they have prepared their lines in advance, and yet, as the film progresses, they lose control of their scripts, their feelings, themselves. Among other things, “The Mulberry Bush” is about how—no matter how much we try to stay in control—we can grow deranged and denatured in response to the difficulties of life.
I found the last shot unsettling. I won’t tell you what’s in it—no spoilers!—but it ends when a circular vignette shrinks our field of view from the outside in. That’s the kind of editing transition you might see in a cartoon; it’s as though the film is winking at us. “The Mulberry Bush” opens a window onto a world of anger and pain—and then the window closes. That’s all, folks! We’ll never know who these men really are, in the rest of their lives. That’s appropriate: we saw them in a moment when they didn’t know who they were, either.
Joshua Rothman is The New Yorker’s archive editor. He is also a frequent contributor to newyorker.com, where he writes about books and ideas.