Fans of The National expecting a tour documentary that captures the feel of their exhilarating live shows get thrown a curveball with Mistaken for Strangers. It’s more American Movie than The Last Waltz.
The music, the tour, the band’s camaraderie, all take a backseat to lead singer Matt Berninger’s tumultuous relationship with his younger brother Tom. If it seems self-indulgent, it’s not. It’s an important aspect of the band to explore because both guitar players are brothers, as well as the drummer and bassist.
It’s not hard to see why Tom’s not with the band. A perpetual screw-up, he’s not devoted to anything. He’s an aspiring filmmaker, but his films are almost unwatchable. Though he’s a happy-go-lucky type, his reluctance to do anything resembling work hasn’t served him well up until this point, and it proves disastrous when he accompanies the band on tour as a roadie. He’d rather be filming this documentary and partying with celebrities. That’s understandable, but he never seems to realize he has a job to do first.
The building resentment between the two brothers is often uncomfortable to watch, but this makes for a messy experience that’s different than the standard tour documentary. It’s fascinating to watch the jealousy play out. Tom seems convinced that he’s just as talented as Matt, but he’s just had a string of rotten luck, including a DWI. Lazy Tom is hard to relate to, but Matt can be even more off-putting as an aloof drunk who rarely seems satisfied with his performance.
All that may sound like an unpleasant experience, but the confrontational nature of the film makes it so refreshing. The film could have gone a little deeper, but Tom, the credited director, is still an amateur. But the lack of formality gives the film a raw energy, which the film needs to carry it through its short run time.
Mistaken for Strangers won’t ever be on a list of the best concert films ever, because it’s after something far different. It goes a completely different route and ends up somewhere far more interesting. More documentaries should take the road less traveled.