Bright Lights Film Journal

“That’s Actually Kind of Funny. It’s So Stupid”: Irony and Nostalgia in Alex Ross Perry’s <em>The Color Wheel</em> (2011)

The Color Wheel has been criticized in some circles for having an improvisatory and unfocused structure, yet all the film’s major thematic concerns are explicitly introduced in its compact pre-credit scenes: sexual frustration; the paradoxical intimacy and distance of estranged adult siblings; the claustrophobia brought about by temporal and spatial compression; and the masochistic tendency of the characters to be attracted to those who openly disrespect them.

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Following the abrasive experimentation of Impolex, Perry deliberately decided that his second feature would take a more recognisable, audience-friendly form – at least on its surface. Perry has spoken in multiple interviews of his desire to “present viewers with a strange little movie that has all the trappings of something they are comfortable with – a somewhat clear narrative, a character or two, locations, dialogue” before “tak[ing] this sense of stability away from them and let them do some of the work.” Indeed, the basic plot of The Color Wheel is rife with the clichés of a subgenre that dominates 21st-century American independent cinema, the post-grad coming-of-age dramedy: aimless, hyper-literate young protagonists struggling to navigate the early stages of adulthood; a return to a hometown framed as a way of coming to terms with an idealized past; half-antagonistic, half-affectionate family relationships; a middle-class setting that unromantically combines iconographic elements of decaying Americana with the anonymous, gentrified spaces of post-industrial modernity. Yet, just as Impolex begins with a familiar source text before complicating our preconceived ideas of how an adaptation should function, The Color Wheel takes this staid subgenre and works against our expectations of how the narrative will unfold. As Peter Labuza argues, “Cinephilia history is fueled with oppositional tracks – surrealist cinema is in opposition to theater, the Euro New Wave in opposition to literary adaptation mode, slow cinema in opposition to hyper-continuity. It seems to me that The Color Wheel in some ways stands in opposition to its own contemporaries.”

As in Impolex, Perry’s aesthetic is built on an interplay of modern and anachronistic techniques, though here the sense of nostalgia conjured is tied to the character’s idealization of a personal past rather than a political one. Perry was reportedly uneasy about the idea of shooting on black-and-white celluloid, because he felt that his inexperience as an actor would lead to a large number of takes having to be shot, hence wasting a great deal of expensive film stock. However, he was ultimately swayed by the conviction of cinematographer Sean Price Williams: “I said I think we should maybe shoot this on video. But he got me to admit the visual references of what I wanted the film to look like […] I had just seen this exhibit of these Robert Frank photographs, The Americans, with these grainy black-and-white pictures of rest stops and diners, and just tiny little pieces of a completely vague America. So he said there’s no reason why your film shouldn’t be grainy black-and-white, because that’s what you feel spiritually the project is. And he was right.”

The Color Wheel was infamously rejected from the 2011 Sundance film festival, though its lengthy festival run included screenings at a number of high-profile venues such as the Locarno Film Festival, the Vancouver International Film Festival, and the Chicago Underground Film Festival, where it tied with Damon Russell’s Snow on tha Bluff for the title of Best Narrative Feature. It was later hailed as the year’s best undistributed film by both Indiewire and The Village Voice, and was included in The New Yorker’s annual top 10 list. Despite these honours, reviews of the film were polarized, and it never achieved a proper theatrical release (though it finally received a DVD release in late 2015, as part of a limited-edition double set with Impolex). In a scathing review for Ion Cinema, Ryan Brown not only trashed the film, but balked at the decision to screen it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music alongside “epiphanic Bresson and Zulawski retros.” To Brown, The Color Wheel is “more than just incompetent: it’s a hostile attempt to make audiences complicit in the director’s own self-enamored delusion. It’s blatant ego fascism.” On the opposite end of the critical spectrum, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of MUBI Notebook described The Color Wheel as being “the cinema of the future, I hope.” In his short but concise piece, Vishnevetsky discusses the film’s risky and potentially alienating attitude toward audience identification: “It takes some goddamn nerve to approach an essentially humanist premise through the trappings of ink-black misanthropy, and to align not with the few good people who might (theoretically) exist in this bleak world, but with two characters who are fascinatingly repulsive idiot-failures.”

Though the praise wasn’t unanimous, it was becoming evident that Perry was a fresh and original voice who was producing work unlike any of his contemporaries. As Cinema Scope’s Michael Sicinski argues, Perry’s style represents the “pursuit of less-than-apparent aesthetic agendas that embrace aspects of narrative cinema typically considered fundamental – character, continuity, story arc – in order to undermine their usual functions. This poses significant challenges to viewers and festival programmers alike, both of whom are more used to films that play either by mainstream or arthouse rules.”

Since its release, The Color Wheel has amassed a substantial cult audience, and has only grown in critical stature. In a piece written in 2014 for Fandor, Calum Marsh hails The Color Wheel as being “among the most significant American films of the last decade-plus,” before going on to comment on its complex interplay of irony and sincerity: “[The Color Wheel] seem[s] at first to double down on irony and cynicism only to somehow emerge as [a] richly emotional experience […] Perry has devised a shrewd method of generic reconfiguration. The Color Wheel is grounded in the perspective of the siblings at its core, and all of the action which follows gravitates around their (temporarily) unified orbit. We view the world, in other words, through the shared point of view of Colin and JR, brother and sister against the world. Encounters take on an uncanny quality – sometimes exaggerated, sometimes dreamlike […] When The Color Wheel suddenly pivots, in its final act, from a comic register to something more tragic, the effect is more pronounced than a simple tonal shift; instead it feels as though the parameters of the film have changed.”

As Marsh argues, the opening half hour of the film is, in many ways, scripted like a conventional screwball comedy. The verbal sparring of the central siblings is filled with pithy put-downs and games of petty one-upmanship. Yet Perry’s approach to framing and cutting tends to de-emphasize the punchlines and accentuate moments of uncomfortable dead air that hang between the jokes. This unusual approach is exemplified in the film’s obscure, elliptical prologue; a near-silent scene of startling emotional immediacy, in which the only punchline deliberately falls flat and the predominant mood is one of subdued melancholy. JR wakes next to a man’s torso, sighs dejectedly, apparently regretting the decision, and walks to a nearby dresser. Appearing ravaged by self-disgust as she compulsively smooths her hair, she picks up a photo from the shelf next to her, it, and checks to see that the man – whose face is still hidden from us – hasn’t woken. She breathes a sigh of relief to see he’s still asleep, and exits the room. Perry cuts to black for a few moments, then opens on a static wide shot of JR, now fully dressed, drinking coffee in a leafy garden. She’s framed by a window, creating an impromptu frame-within-the-frame. After a beat, Colin, dressed in pyjamas, comes out to join her. The tone of the opening appears to be lifting as JR gently ribs his choice of clothing (“nice shirt!”). But, as JR chuckles to herself, we see that Colin has no words to respond with, and they fall into silence. It’s difficult to tell exactly what they’re feeling. The camera tracks in very slowly, and it seems as if the viewer is being pushed gradually toward entering this deeply uncomfortable emotional territory. Yet, before we get too close, and before Perry contextualizes this interaction in narrative terms, the screen cuts to black.

This is the kind of low-key narrative gamesmanship Perry loves to experiment with. In lieu of clearly establishing central conflicts and plot strands, the opening of The Color Wheel poses more questions than it answers: How are these people related? Why would this woman be so dejected upon seeing her sleeping partner in one scene and then act so cavalierly in the next? How are these two characters related? Why is the man responding so morosely to her joke?

It’s not until the end of the film that we realize this scene is actually an epilogue. The next sequence, however, only heightens our confusion. Colin fruitlessly attempts to coax his uninterested girlfriend Zoe into sex, arguing that they need an intense dose of physical passion to tide them both over during the extended trip he’s about to take with his sister, JR Yet the elliptical trickiness of this opening encourages the viewer to think back and re-evaluate the assumptions they initially made. We now realize that the two characters were never shown in bed together, only in the subsequent two-shot, so naturally what we initially assumed was one scene was actually two temporally separated events that we only took to follow on from each other due to their place in the timeline. Perry encourages viewers to pick up narrative clues selectively so that they jump to their own conclusions that avoid confronting the messy emotional truth of their incestuous encounter directly. Zoe recoils, questioning why Colin is bothering to help JR, considering the animosity both he and his parents demonstrate toward her. Colin concedes that’s true, but points out that because Zoe is an only child, she “has no frame of reference.” Immediately, the bond between siblings is revealed to be so tight it essentially isolates them from the outside world, creating a self-contained system of personal morality.

The Color Wheel has been criticized in some circles for having an improvisatory and unfocused structure, yet all the film’s major thematic concerns are explicitly introduced in these compact pre-credit scenes: sexual frustration; the paradoxical intimacy and distance of estranged adult siblings; the claustrophobia brought about by temporal and spatial compression; and the masochistic tendency of the characters to be attracted to those who openly disrespect them. Though Perry eschews straightforward exposition, we also quickly gather a comprehensive view of the relationship between this duo through a number of carefully placed asides and jabs, some things become clear quite quickly. JR has distanced herself from her family and her hometown, dropped out of college, and is now devoting her life entirely to the lofty goal of becoming a major broadcast journalist. Colin, on the other hand, has retreated into an adolescent state, living with his parents in his old room. Having given up on his dream of being a novelist, deeming it “too pathetic” to feel like he hasn’t achieved it, he’s apathetically settled for an unsatisfying job as a copywriter and a passionless long-term relationship. JR has been spurned by her family and her former friends, and she views this state of affairs as being driven by their personal jealousy at her confidence to follow her outlandish dreams. This is hard to argue with, at least in Colin’s case. After mocking JR’s “vision board” as a “giant piece of shit covered in pictures of you,” JR retorts “you wouldn’t understand, you have no hopes or dreams.” And she has a good point.

The details of JR and Colin’s shared past are kept vague, though we come to glean several key pieces of information about it – mostly revolving, in some way, around sex. Colin recalls getting his first erection from a babysitter who used to seductively pull on his ears; JR once found their mother’s dildo in a dresser drawer, and her first instinct, inexplicably, was to sniff it. Colin stole and saved a photo of JR and her friends in their bathing suits as teens. Like adolescents, the pair’s fascination with sex is matched by their intense discomfort when confronted with it. The two engage in a jokey discussion over which one is more likely to have been molested as a child, which ends with Colin scolding JR for looking at his crotch while she says the word “molested.” Reading from a complimentary Bible, JR focuses on a section that dictates a man must be put to death if he’s caught mating with an animal, which, she argues, “doesn’t sound fair to the animal.” Because the narrative lacks any clear sense of forward motion, and because this sexual undercurrent is so heavily hinted out throughout the film, the incestuous climax feels like a shocking rug pull while also seeming to make perfect sense. It drastically sheds a new light on everything that came before, and makes subtext burst into text. This risky, unusual structure is similar to one employed in Impolex, and it encourages the viewer to re-evaluate their perception of everything that came before the revealing climactic scene.

Perry repeatedly places Colin and JR in extremely close proximity within tight spaces. Inside the motel bathroom, a shirtless JR mocks the prudishness of a visibly uncomfortable Colin. She asks him, with a mock-anachronistic cadence that’s becoming increasingly familiar, “haven’t you ever seen a pair of beautiful bosoms before”? Colin, turning away to avert his gaze, replies: “Not yours. Jesus Christ.” Unlike the upfront, teasing JR, Colin seems intensely uncomfortable at any mention of sexual contact. When JR then asks him if she looks sexy enough to make her ex-boyfriend jealous, Colin fruitlessly tries to convince her that a more appropriate choice of clothing would be a tool belt especially made for carrying heavy loads. Finally coaxing him into admitting that her attire looks “sexy,” JR exits, satisfied, implying that she’ll leave Colin alone to masturbate.

Much of the charged banter between the pair seems to be motivated by sexual frustration. While trying to get to sleep, they hear a couple fucking in the next room. JR takes an immediate, active interest in listening in and trying to deduce the mechanics of the encounter. As if making a point of her casualness, JR remarks that “having sex in motel rooms is so cliché. I bet they’re fat.” Colin, meanwhile, is so disturbed he threatens to call the staunch Christian hotel manager to make a noise complaint. The sex ends prematurely, however, and JR deduces that the guy must’ve been “quick to cum.” The next morning, she runs into the woman in the parking lot and pins her bad mood on the fact that she “didn’t have multiple orgasms, [she] only had one.” Both JR and Colin reveal their sexual lives with their respective partners to be extremely unfulfilling. Colin brags about the abundance of sex he and Zoe had on a recent vacation to Puerto Rico, only to reveal later that not only was that a lie, but that they haven’t slept together in months. JR claims that her ex-boyfriend Neil never gave her an orgasm, and feels like she could use footage of herself faking them as part of her acting reel.

As in Perry’s other films, the adult relatives of the young protagonists are largely absent, and, when they are referred to in dialogue, they sound as if they are thoroughly unhelpful role models. As the film opens, for example, Colin tries to convince JR to have dinner with him and their parents before they embark on the trip. JR knows that Colin knows well enough of their hostile relationship to respond only with “what do you think I wanna do?,” before answering her own question: “Leave right now.” The only piece of parental advice recounted in the film is the comically inept chestnut given by their father that “the person who exposes himself is always the life of the party.” Neil frames himself as a paternal figure for JR, but he’s hardly a figure of respect who can offer substantial guidance. His fatherly duties amount to little more than providing JR with some financial assistance while limply promising to hook her up with weather girl jobs. Notably, Neil left his wife and daughter to live with JR, further highlighting his failure as a patriarch. At another point, JR spots her professional hero, a newswoman referred to only as Ms. Wagner, in a café. She nervously approaches her to ask if she has any advice for an aspiring anchor. Wagner is transparently disinterested, and retorts that a good rule of thumb is “not to bother people while they’re eating.”

The world of The Color Wheel, therefore, is one in which adult supervision is absent and the young are left to amble around unmoored, removed from the guidance of their elders; their moral disorientation is largely the result of having few traditional examples of success to look up to, and, in JR’s case, have taken on characters as parental figures who are comically inept to fill the role. Furthermore, they’ve been let to shoulder the economic ruin brought about by the baby boomer generation. Colin has given up on trying to transcend his social position. Despite JR’s lofty professional ambitions, she lacks the work ethic to pursue her career practically, instead opportunistically looking for ways to latch onto insiders who may help to give her a leg up in the industry. To rub salt into the wounds, JR’s idealistic plans are openly mocked by her former school friends, one of whom condescendingly asks how she manages to “find time for all [her] little auditions,” before adding that she can’t imagine what sort of profession would suit somebody with such a “kooky sense of humour.”

Though the opening scenes seem to establish the narrative’s driving motivation as a quest to retrieve JR’s belongings from her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, this primary plot strand is wrapped up abruptly. The remainder of the narrative hinges on a series of chance encounters and snap decisions, as the pair try to buy time away from their respective domestic lives. After retrieving her belongings, JR runs into a couple of former school friends, Kim and Julia. JR feels that they deliberately abandoned her after high school, and, in an attempt to ease the tension, they invite her to a party at Julia’s place, promising her that a prominent talent agent will be attending. Colin, initially reluctant at the prospect of reconnecting with a group of former acquaintances he’s spent years trying to distance himself from, is eventually persuaded by the prospect of meeting and potentially seducing his childhood crush, having lost a considerable amount of weight since high school.

Perry’s radical technique here is to use comic exaggeration to plunge viewers into the headspace of the central duo over the first half of the film, then subtly encouraging a re-evaluation of them during the second. Despite his limited screen time, Neil plays a vital role in shaping our perceptions of our ostensible heroes. His cruelty and pettiness trumps even that of our protagonists, and he uses their characteristic techniques of ironic insulation and snappy put-downs against them. When Neil refers to Colin as a “pathetic wreck of post-graduate stereotypes,” Colin retorts with the comically resigned: “Well, I may not be the cool journalism professor, but I am well aware of how little respect everybody has for me.” His retort comes across as funny – a total defeat disguised as a victory. As the film goes on, though, we find ourselves, if not agreeing with Neil’s assessment, then at least coming to acknowledge the true hollowness and insularity of a life primarily preoccupied with limply mocking anything that resembles genuine sincerity or enthusiasm.

This shift in the course of the narrative symbolically tracks the characters’ journey into their past, and we get an indication of the many humiliations and setbacks they experienced during their childhood that, in part, helped to shape their current emotionally detached, embittered state. We now see them in a position of powerlessness as they have to confront the relative personal and professional successes of their peers. Whereas dialogue scenes would before be divided into reverse-shot sequences, usually incorporating three-quarter-profile close-ups, events are now often divided into lengthy, static wide shots. Initially, we’re encouraged to laugh along with them as they take jabs at easy targets, all of whom Perry portrays in caricatured terms – fundamentalist Christians, roadside cafes, gargoyle figurines, singing waiters, babysitters with speech impediments. Yet, after initially considering Colin and JR to be superior to these marginalized figures, we soon begin to realize the emptiness of an ideology based entirely on opposition.

It’s at this point that the pair’s habit of using irony to mentally distance themselves from any given situation as a form of emotional self-protection becomes increasingly apparent. Under closer inspection, both characters reveal themselves to put more stock in the social codes they reject in private than they initially seem to. JR is very up front about her intention to focus her attentions entirely on achieving her dreams, until she’s put in a situation where such a stance risks humiliation and ridicule. Her alienation from her peers is particularly expressed during the party sequence. The other guests gather around to boast of their minor professional victories: “I’m a junior accountant at one of the biggest telecommunications firms in the city. Pretty soon, that’s gonna be senior accountant.” When put on the spot and asked what she does in addition to looking for journalist work, JR doesn’t hesitate to abandon her pride, and a very uncomfortable conflict plays out as JR casually lies that she also has a day job as a nurse. To her surprise, the rest of the group laud her contribution to the health service, and she receives a round of applause. Her reaction betrays her discomfort as well as a perverse enjoyment. After so many years of being an outcast, she appreciates the sensation of belonging, even if it is based on fraudulence.

If JR is an outcast unintentionally, Colin is more openly accepting of his status as a loner, and takes pride in viewing everybody and everything around him with equal disdain. The closest he comes to making a compliment comes when he describes Neil’s apartment as being “surprisingly tastefully decorated.” After the first invitation, Colin makes as if to extricate himself from his role as JR’s moral support. He claims that he thought the two spent the past few years trying to “get away from these people,” and resents the superficiality of the need to buy new, more fashionable pants in order to fit in. Calmly he tells her: “No party I’ve ever been to has been anything even remotely resembling cathartic. You want catharsis you have a near death experience.” Yet it’s interesting that in the presence of his peers Colin’s arrogance drops and he becomes a docile figure to be mocked and toyed with, hoping to be validated. Soon after entering, he has wine deliberately poured on him, and when later questioned about it shrugs it off, lying: “A gentleman spilled it on me. It wasn’t intentional.” Before long, he’s offering to buy supplies for these same people.

The eagerness of the two to drop their countercultural stances when placed under social pressure or in a position to gain something reveals the extent to which these cynical poses are shallow. Though the two make a show of ridiculing the conventions and institutions respected by the majority of the population, they ultimately bow down to these same conventions out of fear of being rejected and ostracized. It’s this fundamental hypocrisy that reveals their use of irony as a weapon is not rooted in a genuine anger toward societal injustices, but a simple desire to protect and inflate their own egos. When Colin asks JR, in his most vulnerable moment, whether she could ever perceive him as being as pathetic as the people at the party, she responds with a good-natured but ultimately limp: “Of course not. They’re losers. We’re special.” When put on the spot and forced into moments of self-reflection, they clearly fail to come up with a full counter-argument to the societal elements they relentlessly mock. Certainly, the same criticism can be lodged against the characters of many of the hip movies The Color Wheel superficially resembles, but Perry’s innovation is to find a way to transcend these facile political and moral valuations. To examine how he does this, it’s helpful to first establish what Perry doesn’t view as being a valuable response to irony.

Though their fellow party guests seem considerably happier and well adjusted than the central twosome, they are also guileless and comical in their solemn arrogance. Kim is the character most explicitly associated with this form of disingenuous sincerity. Kim seems to possess the conventional model of mid-20s success: she owns her own place, reads, and enjoys conversation, but she is also portrayed as a terminally dull and rather pathetic figure, notably when she proudly brags of her mundane job as “assistant to the head of client management at an artist’s union,” before shooting Colin a flirtatious wink. In response, Colin furrows his brow, uneasy. While hosting the party, she takes on a shallow, blasé tone, and is often heard dutifully engaging in surface-level pleasantries that lack genuine emotion. Unlike JR, Kim lacks humour and struggles to establish a critical distance between herself and the subjects she’s speaking about; for example, after hearing that Colin still has a photo of her in a swimsuit from school, rather than finding the humour in Colin’s obsession, she simply says that she’s flattered. Kim’s conversation indicates an absence of a critical mind and a readiness to submit to dominant consumerist discourses and hollow social codes. Again, this is revealed to be little more than posturing after JR bursts in on Kim and Colin making out in a side room. JR is the one who pushes them together, telling Kim that Colin kept the old picture of her, before adding that he also kept the ones of herself, which is “kind of weird,” as if subtly reclaiming ownership of him. This is followed by one of the subtle moments of self-sabotage followed by immediate resentment often found in Perry’s cinema, as JR’s demeanour quickly shifts as they enter a side room together to make out. She quickly interrupts the two with feigned shock: “What’s going on in here?!” Colin replies with his characteristic detached deadpan: “Oh, we were just making out. But now we’ve stopped.” JR turns to her and makes it clear that Kim has been used as nothing more than a means to an end: “Thanks Kim. My brother needed that.” Immediately, Kim’s veil of politeness falls as she explodes: “Fuck you. We were only ever friends with you because your family had a trampoline!” Genuine sincerity may be the primary virtue in Perry’s moral universe, but false sincerity is perhaps its most damning sin.

At a metafictional level, these scenes suggest that an indiscriminately sincere engagement with a dramatic text is dull for a character like Colin, who is the same age as the majority of the audience The Color Wheel is targeted at, and whose reaction – a furrowed brow – is designed to be aligned with that of the viewer. Alex Ross Perry’s take on irony is in keeping with the opposition between sincerity and ironical distancing according to which filmmakers and critics alike tend to conceive of spectator engagement. The originality of Perry’s film lies, rather, in its representation of ironic distancing as an attempt to anticipate the spectator’s response, and its subsequent attempt to thoroughly disarm the critical viewer by then delivering an emotional gut-punch in the film’s climactic scene.

When Colin and JR retreat to their grandparents’ cabin, we witness the only true moments of self-reflection and emotional nakedness in the entire film. Colin finally realizes that, beneath all his deadpan posturing, his true driving goals may be more bourgeois than he’d like to admit. He’s been staying with Zoe out of a mixture of fear and apathy, and even though he’d love to be living an “exciting and interesting life,” he’ll probably become the suburban husband figure he’s always looked down on. The motif of the city being an overcrowded, hyper-populated environment where privacy is nonexistent and survival depends on assuming a series of insincere social roles, while the country is a place where one can find seclusion and hence let their guard down and reveal their true selves, will reappear and be expanded upon in Listen Up Philip (2014) and Queen of Earth (2015). It’s becoming increasingly clear that Colin and JR view their romantic partners as little more than means to particular ends. JR repeatedly asserts that Neil is “one of the leading broadcast journalism professors in the country,” and that she thought being with him would inevitably secure her a multitude of job opportunities. Similarly, Colin clearly conflates the act of making out with Kim with an achievement that will validate his post-high school self. After they’ve kissed, he amazedly reveals “I’ve wanted to do that since high school,” and then takes evident pleasure in rebuffing her immediately afterwards. Because we’ve come to see Colin and JR as overwhelmingly pathetic characters – not so much because they’re good people as because they’re victimized by nearly everybody around them, and as a result have become so emotionally hardened and embittered that they have no idea how to truly rectify their unhappiness – we’re encouraged to view the incestuous climax as a moment of genuine transgression, rather than feeling repulsed or shocked at the taboo-busted nature of the scene. We’re relieved that they have finally achieved some degree of emotional bareness, even if it’s inherently fleeting.

Inevitably, Colin and JR immediately regret the escape of their transgression, and make the decision to return to their mutually unsatisfying domestic lives. Except now, the entire emotional tenor of the film has changed significantly. As the two hug in front of their parents’ house, followed by JR’s jokey call-back to an earlier private joke – “Do you think I’ll ever make it to a major market?” – it’s clear that they’ve reached an unprecedented level of intimacy. The two wish each other good luck and part ways. Colin enters the porch of his parents’ home and embraces Zoe. Should Colin and JR leave behind the social mores they deplore so venomously, or return to their shambled, unfulfilling lives of normalcy? Contrary to the previously stated force of their convictions to the former, the idea of facing public disgrace is ultimately too powerful for them, and they opt for the latter. Colin seems more comfortable with this response – he already has a whole life plan laid out before him, and even though he’s unsatisfied with the idea of growing into a balding suburban husband, the family life seems to constitute in his mind a form of low-key success he previously feared would elude him. When he and Zoe embrace at the front door, it’s an archetypal image of suburban bliss, yet Perry problematizes it by lingering on the shot for so long it becomes uncomfortable, especially as Colin opens his eyes and gazes into space. The fact that we see their decision to part as being tragic highlights the extent to which Perry has subtly normalized the act of incest.

Thus the ending becomes more or less a parallel of the beginning, stressing the circular nature of the characters’ behavioural patterns, which keep them trapped in self-destructive cycles of their own making. Yet the film ends on an obscure note of hope. Lowering her sunglasses to hide her tears, framed through a windshield that obscures her face with reflections of branches, JR’s lip trembles – reminding us of an earlier moment in the film, when she was scolded by Neil for shedding tears over their breakup, to which she responds, “I’m not crying. I’m allergic to your stupid cat.” Then Perry cuts to a brief, tantalizing shot of Colin’s door opening. The question of whether he will exit or not is left ambiguous as the screen cuts to black.

Note: All images are screenshots from the DVD.

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Works Cited

Bale, Miriam. “A Conversation with Alex Ross Perry about The Color Wheel,” Slant, June 19 2011. Accessed May 5 2016. [link:]

Brown, Ryan. “The Color Wheel Review,” Ion Cinema, May 10 2012. Accessed May 1 2016. [link:]

Labuza, Peter. “The Color Wheel: Like Fucked-Up Brother, Like Fucked-Up Sister,” Labuza Movies, May 31, 2012. Accessed April 25 2016. [Link:]

Marsh, Calum. “The Color Wheel: Contronting the Modern Condition,” Fandor Keyframe, January 17 2014. Accessed April 28 2016. []

Sicinksi, Michael. “Gravity’s Grayscale: Alex Ross Perry’s Cinema of Deaffirmation,” Cinema Scope, September 2011. Accessed May 7 2016. []

Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. “The Lower Depths: Alex Ross Perry and The Color Wheel,” Mubi Notebook. June 19 2011. Accessed April 28 2016. []