Reel Women: ‘Nobody Walks’
Impulse and senses collide in a tale of emotional propriety and nebulous boundaries in ‘Nobody Walks,’ the new film from director Ry Russo-Young. Co-written by Lena Dunham, the film follows Martine (Olivia Thirlby), a young artist who comes to stay with a liberal family and casually shakes their microcosm listlessly as if it were a snowglobe placed there for her amusement.
Martine is working on a film reel featuring insects for an upcoming solo art show in her hometown of New York when she comes to visit Peter (John Krasinski), a married sound designer in LA who can help her complete her vision. When we’re introduced to Martine she’s passionately making out with a guy she met on the plane from NY to LA, who has kindly offered to give her a ride to Peter and Julie’s house. Upon arrival, she immediately catches the eye of everyone in the house, bewitching them with the mystique of something foreign. Her laissez-faire attitude brings her into their home like a quiet breeze, immediately capturing the attention of not just Peter, but his younger assistant David. Julie’s daughter Caroline (Jane Levy) has a crush on David, and watches as Martine effortlessly and unknowingly whisks him away, though he was never Caroline’s to begin with. Meanwhile, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) is dealing with a smitten patient (Justin Kirk) and trying to keep an eye on her flirtatious husband.
It is, undoubtedly, a tangled web, and one that ‘Nobody Walks’ illustrates with the precision of a surreal dream, underscored by Kirk’s description of his own dream to Julie during one of their therapy sessions. What is made obvious from the outset is that this is a film about impulses, and how our senses trap us like bees in honey. We pay attention to what is tactile and tangible, what we can hear and see and feel, and those things are innate and unavoidable, but there are also choices that we make. The film seeks to illuminate ideas of propriety and property, and jealousy with permission versus that which is in our nature.
Just as our senses are inextricably linked to our emotions, so are we connected to each other — not just in our relationships, but by that which makes us human. We overlap; Caroline’s jealousy of Martine is born of admiration and desire, whereas Julie’s jealousy of Martine is derived from wisdom. David desires Martine in an organic way, while Peter desires her the way a projector is desperate for a screen on which it can place fictional images. Peter becomes further tangled in the web by his own hypocrisy, jealous of David and Martine’s hook-ups, when he has no right to be — or does he? What do we have a right to feel when the moral compass is out of focus? We are all human and we feel — and do — impulsively.
Martine is young and more impulsive than others. She wears a wedding ring, which we can infer is her armor from unwanted attention. She has, perhaps, been over-indulged with male affection and attention — so much so that a simple act of kindness from Peter inspires her to kiss him, and that tiny spark sets off a flash of fire. She tells him they can forget it happened. She understands he is married and it was a mistake. But she hardly needs pressing before she’s having sex with him. Martine encapsulates the modern woman’s dilemmas — should we not be free to have sex with whom we please? Should we be judged as whores when we engage in casual — and consensual — sexual activity? Should we then become the canvas on which every man paints his desires? When we say no, we are blamed for leading them on. We are blamed for being pretty. We are blamed for making them feel.
Martine has fault just as Peter has fault, but this isn’t about rigid suburban marital codes. This is about what is permitted and what is not — whether we give permission to jealousy or indiscretion, and what we decide is okay. Our decisions will, inevitably, affect those closest to us, and that’s something Peter wholly ignores in his pursuit of what Martine represents to him. He isn’t interested in her as a person, but more as a symbol of what life could have been or could be, but ‘Nobody Walks’ isn’t interested in what Peter wants, fortunately. We’ve seen this desperate, regressive male perspective before.
The film begins as one about the complexity of connection, and the way we tangle ourselves in other people — and maybe we do this to ourselves when looking for a way out of… something, or everything, or what might, in the eyes of others, approximate nothing. Martine is the epitome of someone young and casual, with no grasp on how her actions may impact others because she’s never had to truly care. But she is who she is, and the men she sleeps with are little more than recreational pit stops. She isn’t a bad person, she just gave in to the wrong person.
‘Nobody Walks’ establishes its mission early on (for those paying attention), when Justin Kirk tells Rosemarie DeWitt, “A lot of smart women think too much to look good and talk too much to f— well” — this is the male perspective the film wishes to address. This idea that women are little more than objects — Peter nostalgically romanticizes Martine, Julie’s patient sees her as another object to possess sexually, and even Caroline’s Italian teacher views her as little more than a shiny toy with which he is not allowed to play.
The men of ‘Nobody Walks’ resent women for their power of choice, for their ability to have the same freedom that men do. Martine, Caroline and Julie are three strong women who know what they want, and what they feel is okay. Martine is only handicapped by her impulsive ignorance, and in this way she serves as the evolutionary link between the young, poetic and romantic Caroline, and Julie, who is sure of herself and very aware. Martine exists somewhere between them, where permissiveness and provocation collide.