Postal worker Eric Bishop is a man who has repressed all those messy, painful emotions that most of us try to avoid for years. His second wife split seven years ago leaving her two teenage sons behind, but he has little control over them. He dutifully marches through the days without much effort, but he is finally forced to face his unresolved feelings when his daughter from his first marriage asks him to help babysit her daughter. He would, however, have to pick up the baby from his first wife Lily. He hasn’t seen Lily in over twenty years after he abandoned their marriage and baby for unclear reasons – to both Lily and Eric. While time has softened Lily’s feelings to a point where she can see the man to help their daughter, Eric’s repressed feelings overtake him and he snaps when he sees Lily from afar, unsure how to talk to her or why he left the woman he loved. He races off and ends up plowing his car into another while driving the wrong way in a roundabout. In the days after the accident, while he is recovering, Eric begins to confront the roots of his depression.
While Eric thinks he has little to live for at the beginning of the picture, his journey shows him that if you don’t take a risk – open your heart, deal with your feelings, and cultivate the relationships around you – then nothing can change for the better. This journey is jumpstarted by pot-fueled imaginary conversations he has with his idol, Eric Cantona, former star Manchester United footballer. Cantona (playing himself) pushes Eric to confront his feelings, talk to his ex-wife, take a stand with his stepsons, and to acknowledge the support he does have, especially from his friends at the post office.
Looking for Eric challenges men – especially working class men – to deal with their feelings. Director Ken Loach illustrates how years of repressed feelings can rot away the core of one’s life – dirty homes, broken relationships, depression. Only by facing his fears and feelings (especially facing up to why he abandoned his wife and daughter) can Eric begin to put his life back together again and be the man he needs to be for his ex-wife, daughter, granddaughter, and, most especially, his troubled stepsons (especially one who becomes involved with a dangerous criminal and that conflict fills the back half of the film). This movie also challenges men to give up the idea that they can deal with it all on their own: we have friends and family here to support us. Eric Cantona tells Eric that his most memorable moment in his professional career is not a goal, but a pass to a teammate. Without Cantona’s teammates he would have never been a great player and the same can be said for any athlete on a team, or any person in life.
Steve Evets has been cast perfectly in the lead as Eric Bishop. He has the appearance of a man who has lived through a lot (and the musician/actor has indeed had a rough life, including a being stabbed multiple times and having his throat cut in a fight). Early scenes, where he is emotionally battered, he looks so far gone that I wondered how they would get him back. But Evets pulls a remarkable transformation when he discovers a new reason for living. It is a truly wonderful performance.
Ken Loach is one of the few working directors that I trust completely. When I get nervous about the tone of a scene or the direction of the story, I just have to remind myself that this is a Ken Loach film (and that happened several points in this movie like Eric’s conversations with Cantona feel too long; the movie drags in those scenes and I just wanted to get back to everything else, but by the end I forgot about this complaint). There is no other director working today who has such a solid grasp of how to construct a complete, well-rounded, emotionally satisfying picture while also saying something meaningful. The working class and the issues they face are usually his subjects, but he never sacrifices story or character to the service of the larger themes he explores. (And he never depreciates his subjects; he has a profound respect for a group that is often ignored or mocked in major productions.) Loach is truly a great director; it is a shame he is not well known in this country.
This picture has been touted as his first comedy and while there are some very funny scenes, Loach is really dealing with somber issues punctuated by humor (and isn’t that really how life goes?). If you go into the film expecting a laugh riot, you will be disappointed. This movie was darker than I thought it would be and many critics have been put off by a credible psychotic criminal bullying the family in the same movie as whimsical visits from a sports hero and truly funny scenes (including one where Eric and his coworkers hilariously attempt a mediation exercise), but I think Loach combines the comic elements well even if the serious issues overwhelm them. Past films he has directed have been more solemn with little or no humor, especially his classic 1969 film Kes (one of my favorites and Loach has made it available on You Tube), or Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), Sweet Sixteen (2002), and the modern classic about the limitations of political violence, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). He has proven time and again that he can move us and inform us, now he shows he can make us laugh at the same time. It takes a crafty director to pull off the narrative balancing act that he does here. Looking for Eric is in limited release now, but it is well worth seeking out.