Some stories take you on a journey toward a preconceived answer to one of life’s many perplexing problems. Daniel Barnz’s Cake, which stars Jennifer Aniston, is not one of those solution-oriented stories; the issues it tackles–grief, loss, and chronic pain–have no tidy solutions.
We begin with Claire (Aniston) attempting to deal with an accident that has left her with chronic pain and a subsequent addiction to pain medication. There are hints of the true horror of the accident, but it does not fully surface until later in the film. We begin with a sarcastic, nasty drug addict who has a strange compulsion to understand the suicide of a woman from her chronic pain support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick).
It is a difficult task to take such an unlikable character and make her the center of our compassion, and director Barnz is able to do that, eventually, but not without some work on our part. More importantly, Aniston bravely takes on this role and creates a complex portrait that never dips into sentimentality or melodrama, even when the depths of her character’s loss are ultimately revealed.
All I knew about Cake before I saw it was that it was about a woman in chronic pain. I had seen Aniston take risks before in the Miguel Arteta’s criminally underrated 2002 film The Good Girl, so I was not worried about her ability to shed her Friends image. Her take on Claire is so subdued (as you’d expect from a depressive) that when her anger arises after simmering beneath the surface for so long, we are relieved.
I didn’t know that the film is actually about emotional, rather than physical pain. In fact, Claire’s stubborn exterior, and her ability to make everything about her physical pain in order to hide the intensity of her inner pain, are perfectly mirrored by the structure of the film. We are always finding ourselves struggling to truly know her, only to be shut out just before we do.
Barnz’s approach is no-nonsense. There is a quirky, 1990s-indie-film feeling to Cake, with depictions of Claire’s various levels of consciousness, as she is in and out of drug-induced sleep. But Barnz always stops short of invoking pure surrealism, keeping it very approachable instead. The result is a quietly realistic film about depression that is carried by Aniston’s performance.