Todd Solondz’ Palindromes shows our world as a character gallery where each character has his or her own unique set of flaws and virtues. There are no heroes or villains here. Even if one chose to discern between the two, the heroes have flaws and the villains have virtues. People are who they are, for better or for worse, and there is no room for change.
The film contends that people are palindromatic: we are the same, forwards and backwards: we always end up the way we started out. We cannot change. While some people may see this as depressing, the film, in its objectivity, does not. Of course, this way of thinking leaves no room for salvation, but on the other side of the coin, it also leaves no room for damnation.
After being forced to go through with the abortion, Aviva (Emani Sledge/Valerie Shusterov/Hannah Freiman/Rachel Corr/Will Denton/Sharon Wilkins/Shayna Levine/Jennifer Jason Leigh) runs away from home with all the innocence of a child, still determined to become pregnant. She goes on a wild adventure: she meets new people, sees new places, has new experiences, and is exposed to different points of view. Naturally, by the end of the movie she returns home. Though having retained her innocence, she has learned nothing through her experience and at the end of the film she tries to get pregnant once more.
The theme of stasis is expressed throughout the film by a whole array of characters and in many ways. In fact, Mark (Matthew Faber) directly states the theme of the film at one point towards the end of the film. When Aviva confides in him that she is worried she will end up like Dawn he responds with:
People always end up the way they started out. No one ever changes. They think they do, but they don’t. If you’re the depressed type now that’s the way you’ll always be. If you’re the mindless happy type now, that’s the way you’ll be when you grow up. You might lose some weight, your face may clear up, get a body tan, breast enlargement, a sex change: it makes no difference. Essentially, from in front, from behind, whether you’re thirteen or fifty, you will always be the same.
Of course, showing and telling are two different things. While Mark gives us a nice summary of what the theme of the film is, a film needs to be able to express the theme on its own. The scene that best expresses what Solondz is trying to say is the scene right after Bob (Stephen Adly Guirgis) and Aviva leave from Dr. Fleischer’s home. Aviva and Bob check into a cheap motel after he shoots Dr. Fleischer and his daughter. Bob is throwing up because he feels extreme guilt over the shooting and Aviva tries to calm him down, explaining that Dr. Fleischer deserved it and that the girl was an accident. Bob vows to change and plans to marry Aviva and start a new life filled with purity and love. The police call and inform Bob that they are outside. He grabs his riffle, says goodbye to Aviva, and they embrace and tell each other their real names. As he opens the door he is shot dead.
Solondz works strictly in realism, or abstract realism, so in analyzing this scene one must focus primarily on action and dialogue. That being said, it is worth noting that the setting of this scene is a motel. Who uses motels? Everyone. This says that what happens in this motel room can happen to anyone. This scene is universal, as is the theme.
The characters are defined right at the start of the scene. Bob is sweaty and throwing up and after he exits the bathroom Aviva holds onto him, trying to comfort him. He says that he did the wrong thing and she tries to tell him that he did the right thing. Bob, as a monster, sees what he did as a great sin and feels awful about it. He is unable to see it any other way. Aviva, as an innocent, sees what he did as just and righteous. She is unable to see it any other way.
Next, Bob tells Aviva that they could start a new life together where they get married, have kids, and overflow the world with love and tenderness: a new life with no mistakes. He tells her he could change and laments the fact that he will not be able to as he is most likely going to be arrested and executed. Aviva tells him that she would say that she pulled the trigger. Bob considers it, but then concludes she is too young and innocent to take the blame.
The exchange here is interesting. Keep in mind that throughout the film (and established again at the beginning of the scene) Aviva has been painted as an innocent and Bob as a monster. Aviva would give up her life and freedom to protect Bob. She thinks she loves him and sees this as the obvious thing to do. Bob declines the offer, saying she is too young and innocent. Innocents can’t make out monsters, though monsters can make out innocents. Because of this, Aviva has no choice but to offer her life and Bob has no choice but to refuse it.
The two of them break down and Bob hits the wall and asks how many times he can be born again. The phone rings and Bob tells Aviva that the police are there. He looks out the window, sees that they are surrounded, and grabs his riffle. They embrace one last time. Aviva tells Bob she hates the world and he tells her not to hate it because God created it.
Up until this point Bob had been going by the name Earl and Aviva had been going by the name Henrietta. She uses his name while trying to comfort him and he corrects her, telling her his real name. She does the same. He walks over to the door and grabs the knob. They look at each other and Aviva asks him to wait. He stops for a second, opens the door, and is shot dead by the police.
When he asks how many times he can be born again, Bob is reaching the realization that he cannot change. He is a pedophile and a murderer. More than likely he is also a child murderer, which is probably the most significant sin for him; pedophiles love children. He comes face to face with the fact that he is a monster.
Bob does not grab the riffle because he thinks he can shoot his way out of a surrounded motel complex; he grabs it because he knows he will be shot upon opening the door with it. He could have surrendered peacefully, but he didn’t want to. Realizing that there is no room for salvation for him, he decides he prefers death. When Aviva realizes what he is doing she comments that she hates the world, but of course she really does not and he asks her not to say it.
Before he opens the door, they embrace and reveal their true names to each other. By revealing their names, both characters come to terms with who they are. Aviva still has the option to walk out with Bob and if she really hated the world she would have. She is Aviva: innocent and naïve. He is Bob: the monster who went too far. As they accept their identities Bob walks to the door and grabs the knob. They share a look and she asks him to wait. For a split second they silently contemplate, perhaps asking if this could end any other way. Of course, it could not. Aviva stays in the motel room and Bob opens the door and is shot dead.
Thematically, this scene serves as a perfect microcosm of the macrocosm of the film. It shows two characters that cannot be anything more or less than what they are and how that shapes their fate. Aviva had no choice other than to survive and Bob had no choice other than to be destroyed.
While there are those who will see this as depressing statement on humanity, it is worth noting that the Wizard of Oz said the same thing (albeit in a much lighter way). The main characters find out that the one thing they always thought they lacked was actually inside of them the whole time. To quote Solondz: The smart will always be smart, the compassionate compassionate, the brave brave, and home home. Nothing ever changes.
Solondz does not view this as depressing stance at all. In fact, he finds it liberating. Despite everything that happens to her, Aviva remains the same at the end of the film. In the end, all we can be is who we are. You might not be a super-genius, or a star athlete, or extraordinary at all, but that’s okay: you’ll always be you.