In American movies, small towns have always been larger than life. Years ago, they were mythologically nice, a sunlit dream of picket fences and ice-cream-social romance. More recently, that Capraesque vision has been undermined by movies like Blue Velvet (1986), which lifted up the rock of American virtue to reveal an ants’ nest of evil. But the three best films I’ve seen so far this fall — they’re opening in major cities over the next two months — are thrillingly evocative portraits of the real small-town America. One’s a drama (Trees Lounge; one’s a documentary (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills; one’s a drama pretending to be a documentary (ITALIC “Dadetown”]. What they share is a heartland vision that’s blessedly life-size.

With his spooked stare, rat-that-ate-the-cheese smile, and scurvy hustler’s bravado, Steve Buscemi is an electrifying fixture in American independent films, a caffeinated downtown geek whose feelings seem to bleed right through his pale vampire skin. Now, in Trees Lounge, which Buscemi wrote, directed, and stars in, he creates the finest role of his career. The film’s title refers to a dank Long Island tavern, the kind of no-atmosphere hangout you can find in every nook and cranny of America. It’s got crummy lighting, piss-water beer on tap, and a rotting galoot named Bill downing whiskey all day long from the same chair. Mostly, it’s got Tommy Basilio (Buscemi), a 31-year-old unemployed auto mechanic who has had such a good time throwing his youth away that he’s only beginning to realize he doesn’t have much of it left.

Tommy used to work in a garage run by his friend Rob (Anthony LaPaglia). Then Rob stole Tommy’s girlfriend and fired him. Knocked askew, Tommy spends his days and nights in Trees Lounge, hanging out with his broken-down barfly ”friends.” Buscemi makes this aging slacker patently charming yet drowning in self-delusion. Tommy, though a loser, has a gift for turning everyone he encounters into an instant life preserver; he bobs and weaves through a mangy community of boozers, misfits, and Lawn Guyland lifers. Chloe Sevigny, from Kids, brings an exquisite suburban savvy to the part of a 17-year-old beauty who turns out to be Tommy’s most selfish mistake, and Daniel Baldwin is a comic terror as her Buttafuccoid father. As a filmmaker, Buscemi blends the spontaneity John Cassavetes always tried for (and rarely achieved) with the communal ebullience of Robert Altman. Trees Lounge is so deft, funny, and light-handed it may not be until the film’s shattering final image that you realize you’ve been watching one of the most lived-in portraits of an alcoholic ever made.

Trees Lounge: A

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