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Montine McLoud, The Space Between

Montine’s Awakening in The Space Between

       Travis Fine’s 9/11 road film The Space Between, which was first exhibited at the Tribeca film festival in April of 2010, has received mostly negative reviews from movie critics; however, it did receive a few awards at independent film festivals across the country, but this fact nonetheless failed to generate any serious discussion of the film. Although there does seem to be a general consensus between most reviewers that actress Melissa Leo, who plays the character of Montine McLeod, delivered an excellent performance, there has been virtually no discussion on the complexity of Montine’s character in the film or her complicated relationship to trauma and loss; and indeed, virtually no critical attention has generated toward the film at all since its first exhibition and its DVD release.

       Although the character of Omar Hassan (Montine’s road companion) played by Anthony Keyvan gets nearly as much screen time as Montine, there are many indications that this film is primarily about the development and transformation of Montine’s character. Of course her development and transformation is highly dependent upon her dynamic relationship with Omar as well as interactions with other characters such as her brother Will, yet these characters are less complex than Montine and often function as “helpers” – to use the old Russian Formalist term – to guide Montine from a state of denial exacerbated by alcoholism to a state of acceptance and to a generally more positive relationship with herself, her past, and those around her.

       It is September 11, 2001. Montine is an airline flight attendant. Over the course of the film we notice that she drinks too much, she has anger issues, a tendency to act insubordinately, has a problematic relationship with her family, and has something inside her that has “blackened her heart,” as her niece suggests. As the film progresses we get closer to the root of Montine’s problem, that which has blackened her heart. During one of the opening sequences of the film we, the audience, get access to one of Montine’s dreams (and this of course is one of the reasons why we can say Montine is our primary subject in the film; we do not have access to any other character’s interiority. Our relationship as a viewer is most intimate with Montine. The dream sequence gives us vital knowledge about her that we would otherwise be in the dark about). At this point in the film (just after Montine wakes from the dream), we do not know that it is the morning of September 11, 2011, and because the dream images resemble footage of 9/11 or of a war zone more generally foregrounding an obscure image of one man in particular coupled with the fact that we already know she is a flight attendant, the audience is invited to see this dream as representing the events of 9/11. Shortly after this dream sequence, we realize that the events of 9/11 are unfolding at the present moment. The audience must reconfigure their reading of this dream sequence as representing an event in the past, prior to 9/11 (of course having already ruled out the possibility of prophecy).         

       When the flight Montine is working on, which is also carrying Omar, must take an emergency landing in Texas due to the plane strikes on the World Trade Centers, the road film is officially set in place. As Omar is a UM (unaccompanied minor), Montine becomes responsible for him once they land. Soon after they land Omar confesses to Montine that his father works in a restaurant in one of the World Trade Centers. A moral obligation forces Montine to risk her job in order to get Omar back to his father in NYC. The first thing they do is hop on a bus heading for NYC. But because of Omar’s praying, which makes the passengers fear he is a “terrorist,” and Montine’s insubordination toward the bus driver (which is also in defense of Omar’s innocence), they are kicked off the bus. They then rent a roadside motel because it is quite late. Their relationship, initially very antagonistic, soon changes. That night, Montine has a second dream, the same dream, but the viewer gets additional images not presented in the first dream. This time, the man in the dream is lying on the ground surrounded by a mass of rubble, suggesting his death. Montine wakes up, and as she has apparently always dealt with her problems, she heads to the bar, leaving quietly not to wake Omar.

       After several drinks Montine says to the bartender “You’ll all forget. Trust me, in a few years from now no one will remember.” She is of course referring to the events of 9/11. She then goes on to question the bartender if he can remember what happened on April 19th 1995, (the day of the Oklahoma City bombing where we soon learn is where her husband was killed and is the content of the dreams. Though this information has not yet been explicitly provided to the viewer at this point in the film, drawing inferences and making the connection between the dream sequences and her statement is suggestive). The sequence at the bar speaks to a number of issues the film is investigating at many levels. One being Montine’s inability to psychologically deal with the loss of her husband, and another being Montine’s perception of cultural memory, which would be something like historical amnesia. Incidentally, Montine’s mother, who dies approximately half way through the film, suffered from some form of amnesia; and indeed, in the scenes that capture these moments in the film, Montine has her third dream.            

       Having confessed to Omar earlier that day (perpetuated by remarks provided by Montine’s niece about how her husband Michael actually died) that her husband didn’t literally leave her, that he died in the Oklahoma City bombings, Montine’s reaction to the dream after having woke up, is not to rush to the bar as she had done previously. In the dream itself, the obscurity of the Michael’s image in the first two dream sequences is clarified. We are given a close up shot of Michael staring directly into the camera, as if to say, “Montine, it’s okay, I am here with you.” (And indeed, such words are actually echoed when spoken in the final sequence of the film when Montine speaks to Omar about loss, the only moment in the film where Montine truly represents self-knowledge and wisdom; and it signifies Montine’s transition from denial to acceptance so now she can actually help others deal with loss). It seems that merely talking about the past, the loss of her husband with Omar, was extremely helpful. The scenes that capture the following morning indicate that Montine has a new outlook on things, she seems genuinely happy for the first time in the film.

       We eventually arrive in NYC and learn that Omar had never spoke with his father. He had told Montine on the morning when they were staying at the road side motel that he called him and that he said he was okay, that he would be waiting upon Omar’s return, that he said thanks to her (Montine) for bringing him home. It’s important to note also that the night before, the night when Montine has her second dream and sneaks off to the bar when we first hear indirectly about the Oklahoma City bombings, Montine calls Omar’s father and leaves a voice message telling him that she is bringing Omar back to him. So, the next morning when Omar tells her that he called home and spoke to his dad, she assumes that their conversation addressed the fact that she called. How else would he be able to “thank her?” The viewer having no more information than what Omar has given Montine also believes Omar’s father is waiting for him when they get back to NYC.

       But Omar’s father is dead. Omar never called his father. Montine and the viewer have been led to believe a lie, a lie that perpetuates the progression of the film. But we now have a scene in which both of our main characters have lost the most important people in their lives to terrorist attacks. If it hadn’t been for Omar’s lie, Montine as a character would never have gotten out of the funk that had blackened her heart. She never would have opened up to people in ways that have helped her deal with her loss and denial. She wouldn’t be able to provide that advice to Omar in the final sequence of the film. Montine would not be a better person, someone who has finally faced the problems that inhibit them and can finally act in ways that are empathetic toward others.

       Of course, one could argue that Omar’s lie functions as a MacGuffin, and this of course would be true. Most of the film reviews focus on the conventions of the film, speaking to the formulaic nature of the narrative. Even so, they fail to address the crosscutting and parallel editing techniques that are formally interesting and also speak to one of the films primary interests: how uniting people, especially people of different cultural backgrounds, can morally enhance those individuals lives; that everyone experiences loss, no matter what nation they are born in or what religion they espouse. Likewise, even though the reviewers praise Melissa Leo’s performance, they say virtually nothing about the dynamics of the character she plays. Montine is a powerful and charismatic individual, but because she suffers a loss too unbearable to handle she suppresses that memory which haunts her in her sleep and drives her to incessantly drink and cut off any genuine contact with the world around her. Her constant pain is visible on her face and resonates in almost everything she says. But she changes. She gets help from Omar and from those who care about her. On the fourth night (the film consists of four nights and four days) Montine does not have the dream. Instead, she is woken up by a phone call from Omar’s teacher who informs her that Omar will not go to the airport to catch his flight to LA without her being there. In the final monologue, the speech that Montine delivers to Omar about how to confront the reality of loosing someone, Montine finally has something to teach Omar, to teach us. She finally has something to give back, and it is the revelation that no matter how painful the loss of loosing someone dear to you may be, they still exist in your thoughts and dreams, and no one can take that from you. In the end, Montine realizes she is not alone.