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Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001)

13 Conversations, 13 Conversations About One Thing

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 104 minutes

US Certificate: R

Galvanised by a mugging in the street, a middle-aged physics teacher (John Turturro) tries to break out of his life’s routine, only to discover that there is room for little else besides routine in his mechanistic view of the world. His wife (Amy Irving) is confronted by his infidelity and her own isolation. After knocking over a pedestrian in his car, a cocky, high-climbing lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) flees the scene, but then is devoured by guilt. A dyspeptic insurance processor (Alan Arkin) decides to wipe the smile from the face of a perpetually chirpy employee (William Wise). An optimistic cleaner (Clea DuVall) who believes herself touched by grace survives an accident but starts to lose her faith.

These five stories, interwoven with countless parallel subplots and conflicting perspectives, form the rich fabric of ’13 Conversations About One Thing’. Characters sometimes connect and sometimes do not, events collide with either no obvious effect or else the most catastrophic consequences, random acts of cruelty and kindness send chaotic ripples through people’s lives, and everyone has a different (but equally limited) perspective – and out of all this there emerges a dramatic investigation of the relationship between cause and effect, stasis and change, crime and punishment, faith and proof, happiness and luck, one person and the next.

‘Irreversible’ comes to be a key word in ’13 Conversations About One Thing’. Yet where Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) presented its events in strict reverse order to demonstrate a profoundly pessimistic view of the world as a place where all good turns inevitably to bad and all hope leads to despair, the chronology of ’13 Conversations About One Thing’ is altogether more complicated, and the conclusion altogether more equivocal. Going both backwards and forwards in time, the film reveals life as a karmic interchange between ups and downs, and characters whose happiness or misery is determined as much by their individual outlooks as by their ever shifting circumstances. In this universe of narratives where hopes are swiftly dashed, where miracles come from unexpected quarters, where happiness is “a disaster waiting to happen” and where second chances are sometimes possible, the film’s ending seems merely an arbitrary point on a broader canvas whose significance depends upon how the characters (as well as the viewers) choose to see it. Both pessimism and optimism turn out to be reversible.

Working from a nuanced script that she co-wrote with her sister Karen, director Jill ‘Clockwatchers’ Sprecher has crafted a film that roots serious philosophical and theological concerns in engaging human drama. Her ensemble cast does not shy away from showing their characters at their most vicious, craven or mean, so that their occasional flashes of good-heartedness seem all the more magical, and even a grudging half-smile from the amazing Alan Arkin comes across like an epiphany.

’13 Conversations About One Thing’ will leave you feeling that even the smallest things in life can be of the greatest consequence. It might even leave you grinning – not so much because it ends on any clearly happy note, but because it shows the awesome power of a smile to change the world for the better. And for a film to achieve that without ever dissolving into mawkish sentimentality truly is a miracle.

It's Got: A criss-crossing, time-leaping narrative structure used intelligently to reflect the complexity and mystery of life; Alan Arkin as amazing as ever, and Matthew McConaughey in his finest, most haunting performance to date; an ending that manages to be satisfying without glibly resolving anything.

It Needs: A willingness from the viewer to help make make the connections and to participate in the conversation.


The big picture on life's ups and downs, not necessarily in that order. Timeless.