Blake Robbins’s haunting psychological drama The Sublime and Beautiful takes us to a dark place that reminds us that we are not the perfect human beings we imagine we are.
Robbins wrote and directed the film and plays David Conrad, a small town college professor with a wife and three little girls.
He’s not entirely sympathetic – he’s having an affair with a student and he lets his family life take a back seat. But things come into sharp focus the week before Christmas when tragedy strikes.
A drunk driver kills his daughters in a car accident, leaving him and his wife to mourn and disintegrate. David starts to have serious revenge fantasies. We spoke with Robbins about this harrowing film.
Your film reminds us that no matter what exemplary beings we are, we have primitive instincts like revenge just beneath the surface.
If I dig deep in terms of a human being, if that happened to me I’d like to be a better human being, but I don’t know, if I was honest I would have the same moral questions.
As in the film, couples tend to break up after the loss of their children. What happens?
Statistically that’s the truth. More often than not couples can’t survive a tragedy like that. Everyone grieves differently, but it depends on the circumstances.
Guilt can be assigned to one or another and that complicates things. As a storyteller I’m trying to show what it looks like from the inside.
Here’s the thing, it wasn’t just my set of circumstances. I was collaborating with actors who offered their takes. Laura Kirk who plays David’s wife Kelly adds her personal thing to it. She had a life circumstance that informed her.
I have a couple for my portrayal and other actors did too. We folded this into the make-believe story, even the dialogue we said to each other came from someone’s life.
In one incredible scene Kelly melts down at the funeral tea, upbraiding the curious and the shallow watchers.
That’s a powerful moment for anyone in the audience that has had that experience in a public space when people are talking about you, not to you and their version and not honouring what was happening.
The feedback is that it is a cathartic moment, that the actors are saying it for them. It’s honest for them and they don’t feel betrayed.
David is frightening. He turns from this regular Joe to an animal seeking its prey.
We’re dealing with four weeks after a trauma complicated by his guilt and he’s not capable of dealing. He’s in shock. The movies don’t usually show this, I think it’s compelling because it’s the truth and most people recognise it.
Someone is suffering from mental illness, short term mental illness and hasn’t cone out the other side. When I see movies I want a visceral experience that people will recognise.
I did try to be mindful that I want the audience go on this challenging journey and that they need to get through it, the subtleties and nuances and a forward movement without manipulation.
The way movies do. I just wanted them to deeply observe the events and what they respond to like the moment in the care when he does something compelling, how far can the audience go with him?
I trusted that they would recognise this character and this person.
He’s not especially sympathetic, so how did you handle that?
If I just kept telling the truth, I knew enough people would stay with me. But I didn’t lie to them. This happens to ordinary people not extraordinary people.
The good news is it’s a movie at first blush people would push away. But enough people are seeing it and responding. The thing all human beings want is to know they are seen and they can see.
People wonder and think about these things and I had to deal with them as a human.
You’re an actor and you put yourself in emotional black holes. How do you deal with that as a person?
It’s a purge. If you fully give yourself to something and leave nothing left over, it’s like love.
You don’t exhaust yourself, you renew and recharge in giving it and as an actor you purge and come out clean. It’s all there. I still feel protected, a part of me and not all of me, and it’s cathartic for me, and I’m lighter for it.
Your children star as your children. That must have made the whole thing pretty piquant, considering the subject matter.
I always let it be their choice and it produced some conversations, some highs and lows and us and downs. They were empowered and it was their choice.
We purposefully compartmentalised the film. When they are adults they will see themselves as children, they won’t be blindsided.
Their take of the film is very different than the film itself. We had cupcakes onset. And they got a peek into daddy’s work.