Katie Says Goodbye is little more than an extended punishment doled out to its protagonist .
Playing like a repository of grim indie clichés, Katie Says Goodbye is little more than an extended punishment doled out to its protagonist (Olivia Cooke), a high-school dropout who works as a waitress while moonlighting as a prostitute to support her unemployed, lazy mother, Tracey (Mireille Enos). If this fails to immediately communicate the level of misery porn that the viewer is about to be subjected to, the film makes sure to remind everyone of Katie’s hardships at every turn. Katie watches her deadbeat mom make out with a married neighbor, scoops cold spaghetti out of a pot left on the stove for dinner and fends off the landlord’s demands for rent. Set in the flat, desolate outskirts of the Arizona desert, the film presents Katie with nowhere to hide from her own life.
Katie is shaded in the most hyperbolically innocent terms possible. A sweet-natured child who has somehow retained her naïveté despite living a hard life from birth, Katie is beloved by patrons and coworkers at the diner where she waits tables, and she is so pure that she adds a few dollars to other servers’ tips when the customers stiff them with pocket change. Even when performing sex work, Katie has a kindly, almost uncomprehending nature to her, doing the job almost absentmindedly in exchange for small sums and minor favors like a ride home. Most of her johns are kindly to her, especially a lonely trucker, Bear (an unexpectedly tender Jim Belushi), but there’s always a faint hint of condescension in her exchanges, as when she asks an old teacher and current client (Nate Corddry) if she should get a GED, to which he casually tells her “It doesn’t matter, you’re a waitress.” It’s difficult to get a firm notion of the young woman’s general level of awareness; she dutifully provides for herself and her mother while saving up cash to move to California, but a childlike nature frequently rears its head. Every night, Katie lies in bed staring up at heaven and says a benediction to her late father, thanking him as if in prayer while also holding one-sided conversations with him.
The film drills down on the ambiguousness of Katie’s ability to conceive the sadness of her life when she meets Bruno (Christopher Abbott), a taciturn mechanic who grunts out sentences in monosyllabic bursts. For reasons unknown, Katie immediately falls for Bruno and proceeds to talk about him in ways that clash comically with what we see of him. She gushes to her boss, Maybelle (Mary Steenburgen), that he has the most handsome smile, an odd thing to say as he does not once crack so much as a grin across the entire movie. The movie does not outwardly mock her affections for this hulking, dispassionate brute, but it treats her with a judgmental sympathy that is nearly as bad.
Katie’s relationship with Bruno naturally dredges up tensions over the woman’s sex work, not only from Bruno but from his envious and misogynistic coworkers (Chris Lowell and Keir Gilchrist). As Katie scrambles to put her side gig behind her to maintain Bruno’s trust, the other two men grow more aggressive in demanding her services, leading to a crass and exploitative scene in which director Wayne Roberts films a terrible moment with the sort of faux-tasteful single-take hackery that has become all too common in indie cinema. Roberts has his cake and eats it too, circumspectly looking away from the grisly moment he scripts for his beleaguered protagonist while lingering on the horror.
The stark, beautiful backdrops and loving compositions with which Roberts frames Katie’s suffering add nothing but the thinnest symbolism at the expense of valorizing her pain. Cooke, an actress whose open expressions have in the past communicated piercing, blunt analysis and judgment, is here robbed of her preternatural sense of deep awareness, instead constantly playing Katie two steps behind even the most basic understanding of any situation. Katie Says Goodbye certainly doesn’t mock its protagonist, but it does trivialize her, reducing her to a passive force who can only react with bafflement to the obvious escalation of her misery.