With skin pale enough to blend in with her blonde hair, and an expression that remains unmoved no matter how much liquor she tosses back, Dina Korzun looks out of place in the Memphis of Forty Shades Of Blue. That's never more apparent than during the film-opening dinner honoring Rip Torn, her lover and the father of her child, but pointedly not her husband. A considerably older music producer from the golden age of Memphis soul, Torn presides warmly though awkwardly over the crowd, basking in the late-in-life adulation before slinking off to enjoy some backstage vice. Korzun remains unimpressed and seemingly unaffected when she has to find her own way back to their home on the banks of the Mississippi by catching a man's eye. That's more or less the same means that prompted Torn to bring her to America. "I have no right to complain," Korzun later tells Torn's visiting, semi-estranged son Darren Burrows (revealing a range never suggested by his role on Northern Exposure). She's gone from having nothing to having it all. But if this is what her happiness looks like, it's nearly impossible to imagine how she looked when struggling in her native land.
Investing a lot of time on each corner of his three-sided character piece, director Ira Sachs (who co-wrote the film with Michael Rohatyn) has created a film as dramatically intense as it is opaque. His characters offer only a few details about what's brought them to their current chilly condition, but their actions reveal more than dialogue could. A larger-than-life figure to most he meets, Torn retains no mystery for either Korzun or Burrows. They've grown used to him and there's no charm to his drunken tantrums, even those performed in the studio. To his musicians, they belong to the mysteries of the creative process. To his loved ones, they're a rerun of yesterday's blow-ups.
Using understated, artful framing, long takes, and an unhurried approach, Sachs lets his characters reveal their many unhappy moods in one situation after another. If anything, the title underestimates the variations on sadness his three leads find, and though the humorlessness can be a bit much at times, the film needs to immerse its viewers in its oppressive milieu to work. As Korzun's zombie-like façade starts to melt, it becomes apparent that she might have had the right idea. As played by Torn—who emerges from a string of joke roles to demonstrate what a powerful actor he can be—her lover doesn't really allow room for anyone to feel anything beyond what he needs them to feel. Even entering his autumn years, he's a force of nature, a river that drags down anyone who gets in too deep.