Ethan Frome is a film that looks at the sadness, oppression, and hopelessness that can fill a man’s heart when he realizes that his life is not where he wants it to be. The film is a very dark and moody film that has very little happiness or hope to show to audiences, but still has some truth to tell and reality to show. Frome’s perspective shows that of a man who is weak, trapped, and full of regret. The film attempts to immerse its audience into this bleak world that Frome sees with a dark color palette and grim aesthetic. Does look and feel of Ethan Frome really get the audience into the psyche of the character or has it fallen into its own obscurity of darkness?
Ethan Frome tells the story of a man who tries to pursue things good and right, but in the process makes a series of very poor decisions that leave him very unhappy and eventually handicapped both mentally and physically. Frome begins as a young man living in the small country town of Starkfield where he marries a woman named Zeena as a gesture. He is never really in love with her, but does enjoy her company. Eventually they have a housemaid named Mattie who comes through to help Zeena while she is sick and Ethan finds himself attracted to her. While Zeena is away Frome makes a move to turn his fantasy into a reality as he begins to confess his feelings for Mattie. Mattie falls for these confessions and decides that she also wants to be with Ethan. The two of them are very excited until they realize that this fantasy cannot happen because of the culture they live in and the way of life that Ethan has established. This fantasy slowly turns into a nightmare as reality sets in between the two of them and they become more and more depressed. Eventually they decide that they cannot live together happily so eventually they decide that they want to die together happily rather than be apart in misery. They eventually make an attempt on their lives, and fail. The story ends with Zeena taking care of a handicapped Ethan and Mattie as they both appear to be alive, but utterly miserable.
There are certainly many themes and ideas to talk about in this film, but I believe that one of the film’s most important aspects is its dark aesthetic. The film is set in the winter in the New England area, a setting that is naturally cold, dark, and grim. The darkest part of the setting however, is Frome’s house which a majority of the film is set in. The movie attempts to immerse the audience in the dark and hollow home of Frome which I believe is also representative of the hollowness of his heart. This aesthetic works most of the time, but unfortunately it might cross too many lines in terms of black levels. The movie gets too dark for its own good to the point that the film is almost unwatchable. This level of darkness also takes the audience out of the experience which completely defeats the purpose of the moody environment. Once the film fails to be immersive, the entire aesthetic and emphasis on the environment fails which is really damaging to the film. It is very unfortunate that something such as lighting could hurt what could have been a potentially better movie.
Aside from the visual aesthetic, the film also fails to make the characters compelling. Liam Neeson is a terrific actor, but unfortunately he does not seem fit for a character that is meant to both sympathetic and pathetic at the same time. He delivers well, but it is really never known what motivates this character. It is made clear that he is unhappy, but there is little emphasis on the series of events that led hims to such unhappiness. Frome is already an inherently unlikable character, and both Neeson and the writers fail to add any real dimensions to the character. Aside from Frome, both Zeena and Mattie seem more like weak caricatures than actual characters. The story of Ethan Frome is really a character study at heart, and unfortunately it really fails to make much of an impact in this particular category.
Overall Ethan Frome really cannot articulate itself the way it should due to its poor film making decisions. There are certainly some interesting ideas and themes in the story underneath the weak production values, but ultimately the film fails at working as a film which renders the rich story of Ethan Frome less than compelling enough to delve into.