There are a lot of lenses through which you can watch The Leisure Seeker. Those who see it as a dark comedy will probably laugh at times, even if they don’t remember any of the jokes the next day. Those who watch it as an honest portrayal of a decades-long love story will likely feel some of both the charm and the melancholy. Those who watch to see why Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are so critically acclaimed will probably be satisfied by two strong performances, even if it takes Mirren a bit of time to settle in to her southern accent. But the audience that will really remember The Leisure Seeker will be the one that sees past the road trip comedy, the nostalgic life examination, and the emotionally manipulative score. The viewers who will be struck by – indeed, haunted by – The Leisure Seeker are those who see this movie for what it is at its core: a horror film.
You may think that doesn’t align with what you know about this movie, but watch the trailer again: both lead characters are navigating scenarios most of us would consider nightmarish. John, a retired English professor, is sliding further and further into dementia, and his wife of 50 years, Ella, is bound by her love and commitment to him to care for him while it happens. Due in part to her own health issues, Ella can see they’re reaching a crisis point, so she decides to take John on one last road trip in their RV, the titular Leisure Seeker, down to the Florida Keys to see the home of Ernest Hemingway.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Michael Zadoorian, and the story is grounded in a romantic notion: leave your adult children/underdeveloped characters behind to worry while you camp and make new friends and look at old photos on a slide projector and generally have one last great adventure. But the way it plays out is also a terrible mess, both literally and figuratively. John can’t remember where he is most of the time, and if he can, he can’t remember why. It breaks Ella’s heart and spirit, but her body is broken as well, and John isn’t capable of taking care of himself, let alone her. The characters in this movie spend much of it disoriented and confused, incontinent or in pain, frustrated and hurt. Decades old secrets are accidentally revealed in moments of dementia. Even when things go well, there’s helplessness lurking around every corner. And in the end, that’s the shit that terrifies all of us more than zombies or evil spirits do because that’s the shit that will actually happen in real life.
And it will happen to all of us, in one way or another – momento mori and all that. That reality is one of the reasons The Leisure Seeker connects in such a haunting way, but the other is the very good work done by Mirren and Sutherland. You notice Mirren first, partly because of that southern accent on a woman who won an Oscar for playing the Queen of England, but also because we see the story through her eyes. What we know, we learn from her and occasionally with her. Her frustration and love and pain all hit hard. But Sutherland might actually be even better. Charged not just with the task of drifting in and out of lucidity in a way that is believable for both the character and the story, he has to do it while maintaining John’s tricky balance of likeability and lovability. More specifically, as John becomes less of a person that Ella likes, he has to remain someone that Ella loves. It would be easy to overlook how difficult it is to maintain the chemistry between these two characters throughout this film, and less skilled actors could have easily failed.
No matter how strong the connection between the two is, though, The Leisure Seeker would have been a better film if director Paolo Virzì had veered darker, or even just more real. Ditch the rose-tinted glasses and the jaunty soundtrack and let a scary story be a scary story. Because zombies aren’t coming for us, but mortality most definitely is.