The Limits of Cowboyism: Broken Circle Breakdown

10/30/2013 4:00 AM |

The Broken Circle Breakdown
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen

This sweet, sincerely acted and very moving drama is an emotional epic, following a pair of country-music-loving Belgians as they start a bluegrass band and then a family—and then lose both. It opens in a children’s cancer ward and flashes back to how the parents met, courted, started harmonizing, got pregnant, and reared a little girl in a cowboy hat with boots to match. The narrative is compressed, moving briskly through time: planes are crashing into the Twin Towers and the next thing you know it’s New Year’s Eve 2003; 45 minutes pass like three hours. But the complex structure maximizes the emotional payoff: the present becomes the past, flashbacks transforming into flashforwards, director Van Groeningen miraculously holding it all together, disclosing more story and backstory at the most effective moments.

It’s not just narrative threads that the director masterfully controls. To make a movie about a dying child means having to exercise supercaution to avoid the maudlin and the manipulative, and Van Groeningen does just that, crafting an intimate, human-level portrait of how emotional extremes affect a couple, each member of which copes, or doesn’t, in their own way.

Those two characters fetishize the American South: they live on a ranch, sing country music in English, and rename themselves after Bible Belt states. But the movie itself is careful to take a step back, using George W. Bush’s warmongering and his pernicious policies on stem-cell research as signifiers of the limits of cowboyism—the failed, unromantic side of a national iconography. What’s worth hanging onto though is the country-folk tradition into which the characters tap; singing the blues is how people have long dealed with the hardships of living.

Opens November 1