Few directors have the ability to mess with viewers' minds quite like Todd Solondz. Over a series of films - 'Welcome to the Dollhouse', 'Storytelling', 'Palindromes' - Solondz has made audiences cover eyes, bite lips and hold ribs - sometimes within the same scene - and question their reactions to what's happening on the screen in front of them. His 1998 film 'Happiness' was his most memorable mixture of pitch black humour, harrowing truths and excruciating embarrassment and now he's returned to its characters for a sequel of sorts. But rather than work with the same actors again, Solondz has recast the roles - the idea being to show that people can become different people over time.
In 'Happiness' Cynthia Stevenson, Jane Adams and Lara Flynn Boyle played the three very different sisters from whom the various storylines spun out; here it's Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson and Ally Sheedy. Philip Seymour Hoffman was cast as the obscene phone caller in the original, now Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from 'The Wire') takes on the role. Back in 1998 Dylan Baker made people squirm in their seats as the paedophile psychiatrist, in 'Life During Wartime' Ciarán Hinds is even scarier as the just-released-from-prison sex offender.
With visions, characters damned to wander the earth and discussions about forgiveness, 'Life During Wartime' has a Biblical feel and Solondz asks viewers just how much they think it's possible for people to change and leave the past behind. It is, as usual, uncomfortable viewing but feels less complete and more trippy than 'Happiness'. That said, the performances are excellent and the bar scene involving Hinds and Rampling is worth paying in for alone. If you want to see two actors at the top of their game delivering one of the most memorable exchanges in this or any other year, then this a film for you - but just make sure you know what you're letting yourself in for.