How many poets never become poets? It is the question that every writer asks himself, especially if fame has until now eluded him. Failure has many hues and brushes, but we accept that failure at certain trials means success in others because we have a limited amount of energy and attention. Most great artists of legitimate talent have become great because that was the only thing they ever wanted to achieve, and no other event – be it a marriage, the birth of a child, a death, a betrayal – could ever clutter the straight path of destiny. Art, while man's greatest intellectual accomplishment, is an all-consuming fire that some allow to engulf all the meadows of their everyday contentment. A brief preface to this fine film.
Like other movie monsters, Tetro (Vincent Gallo) does not take long to rear his scruffy head. An American resident of Buenos Aires, our Tetro was born Angelo Tetrocini, son of the famed conductor and generally pompous buffoon Carlo Tetrocini (a cetacean Klaus Maria Brandauer). This fact is the most important of Tetro's life, and the one from which all other facts may, seriatim, be revealed. The second fact, almost as important, is that he is a failed writer, and spends every second of every day under this invisible burden. They are merged in a flashback on a cruel beach when Carlo, informed of his son's literary ambitions, claps him patronizingly on the shoulder and whispers: "If you want to live from your writings, you have to be a genius. And there's only room for one genius in this family." Argentina, on the other hand, has been kind to Tetro, albeit not initially. We see him in a mental asylum called La Colifata (which the intergalactic weapon known as Google tells me is lunfardo for "crazy") with enough Spanish to participate in the usual group therapy sessions that always seem far too civilized and logical for a madhouse. He is a broken, humble man who "holds everything he ever wrote in a file pinned to his chest," and has a tendency to prevaricate about a past he has been unable to forget. Which, we are told, is exactly what makes him so attractive to Miranda (Maribel Verdú).
Unpretty but pleasant-looking with distantly placed eyes and a quiet mission, Miranda is that fictional necessity, the unbelievably good woman. More importantly, her foil, the unbelievably bad man, is not Tetro. Tetro is scarred, bitter, and somewhat enraged at the hand life has dealt him (in Italian, tetro means "gloomy" or "bleak"), but he is not evil. He copes with his perceived inequities by channeling his energy into being a different person, the author of a play that he "will never publish," a stagehand at a shoddy little theater plagued by vulgarian whims, and the husband of Miranda. They have no children because children would mean that Tetro would have to love and Miranda would have to love something other than Tetro. Into this uneasy truce with life comes Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich). Bennie is Tetro's brother from a different mother – and we learn that Tetro's mother didn't have much of a chance of having too many other children. Bennie is seventeen but lied his way onto a cruise ship where he works as a waiter. Of course, the cruise ship breaks down in Buenos Aires (precisely where I would scuttle my vessel if I were a captain), and Bennie is left with the option of spending a week in dry-dock or visiting that long-lost brother of his who once wrote him a terribly clichéd letter in which he promised his return.
No one is fooled by this coincidence – not Miranda, not the viewer, and least of all, not Tetro. When Bennie first sees Tetro, the latter sports a cast and crutches from having challenged a bus; later in the film, another character will endure a similar injury and we correctly understand the appurtenances in both cases as excuses. Bennie asks the usual questions, often to Miranda since Tetro selectively ignores most queries from Bennie and everyone else. Miranda does not really apologize for her husband's behavior as much as contextualize it ("family dispute," "mother's death," etc.), and punctuates it with a magnificent adage: Tetro is "a genius without enough accomplishments," exactly how all young and unsung artists feel when they see others gushing over well-known mediocrities. Bennie recognizes his brother's talents and does not let him feel sorry for himself ("How do you walk away from your work? Doesn't it follow you?"), but the film's basic conflict persists: younger sibling wishes to know everything from the beginning; older sibling wants the past sunk irretrievably in some remote swamp. Given this disparity in outlooks, that the brothers communicate at all, and often through exchanges pregnant with meaning, is remarkable. I give nothing away by including the interference of a woman introduced as "Alone," in apposition, "the most powerful writer and critic in Latin America." Once upon a time, she was Tetro's mentor "until she turned against him" ("no one knows quite why" is the equally mysterious echo). People like Alone never have any talent and yet possess the despotic desire to determine who does – a trap which would repulse any first-rate writer. But Bennie sees the woman, an inexorable fraud who only cares about her reputation and control, as an opportunity. All of which leads to a festival so named, one supposes, in order for its founder never to be subject to its dreadful implications.
While Ehrenreich, Brandauer, and Verdú are all excellent, this is Gallo's vehicle and he makes it hum. At times his Tetro reminds us of Willem Dafoe playing the lead role in a Michael Douglas biopic. The plot of Tetro is straightforward in that only one person is concealing information. Once that information is revealed, everything makes more sense, but somehow our impressions of the characters do not radically shift. The announcement is not inevitable, but it is plausible and, in a way, the best possible explanation for what came before it. And what of the family drama that came before it? Oddly, that natural self-awareness or stage presence that imbues interesting people with a sense of the dramatic is intentionally lacking in many parts of Tetro, lending it much of the amateurish feel of the horrible little play it encapsulates – which cannot really be coincidence. For the film's duration only the flashbacks and imaginary scenes are in color because they are exciting and actual life is uneventful and drab, and because for Tetro they are much more real than anything he could ever do in Buenos Aires (the dream sequences that borrow liberally from this work are especially wonderful). We may expect violence, nudity, or profanity, but thankfully our expectations remain unrewarded. For even though all these things occur in Tetro's life, he knows they are the easy resorts of the talentless hack. This is his film, and he does not care – as he tells one character after another, although each time with a slightly different insinuation – what others may think. So forgive him, if only this once, the axe he brings to dinner.