“This film is about a man contracting a virus, and that virus is despair.“
The Writer/Director of this film Paul Schrader said something similar in a interview. And that one sentence truly defines the core of this film. But that’s only the core, the truly brilliant thing that this film does is that it takes that core, Despair, and it infuses it into every element of the film.
Let me work my way into this film from the outside in.
I’ll begin with the smallest exterior element, The Score. It’s nearly non-existent. And when it does exist, it sounds almost muted. The big ‘moments’ of this film are mostly played without score, a choice very, very few directors would choose especially when the entirety of it is silent. The film’s sound design is only concerned with the sounds of this world, birds, liqueur being poured, footsteps and wind but even they are not heightened. There is an audible hollowness to most sounds, a lack of.
Next, let us dive into the films imagery. This is where the film truly showcases itself. The beginning of this film is the perfect introduction to what you will experience.
It begins with a slow crawling movement forward towards a small unsuspecting church in silence, It fades into the image from darkness, The surrounding sounds of wind and birds fade in slowly. The credits are even introduced before we can understand what were seeing. Even the aspect ratio sits at a 1.37 : 1, a near square frame by today’s standard. It immediately feels like a film from another era, from a different time. Uninterested in the modern viewer interests.
And the film continues with this trend. It almost wants you to not watch it. The frame shows locations with preemanance and humanity as things that come and go. We are constantly introduced not by people or characters but by location, a darkly lit room, vacant, but littered with poison, A house, or a church all of them looking empty. Then after a second, we see a character enter and when the character leaves the shot lingers there in emptiness, it doesn’t cut when you expect it too. It made what happened or what was said in those rooms, houses or churches almost devoid of meaning or substance. Did any of that matter? Was that meaningful? That singular sensation creeps into the visual fabric of this film.
Not just in the pacing or editing or the intro’s and outro’s of every scene but even in the framing. Every single shot plays with emptiness, with some select close ups, most of the shots are shot wide and with distance. We see the reverend not in his intoxicated light from up close, but from afar through a doorway, his presence is almost meaningless in these wide shots. He’s rarely centered in these wide shots, always to one side or another, horizontal lines and frames within frames elevate these images into a masterclass of composition.
The way Schrader and Cinematographer Alexander Dynan, bask in darkness is simply inspiring, there are so many scenes in which they accept the darkness and frame things just so perfectly. And when they play with light it is truly delightful, whether its the faint flickering of a single candle, or the sun seeping in from shades, or the harshness of blue from a laptop. It is all a sight to see.
What I love most about this film, is not what it does, but what it doesn’t do. There is so little movement when it comes to the image There is not a single over the shoulder shot in the entire film. That in itself is wondrous. It helps sell the visual relationship we have to this world and to this character, we are never anchored to them, always separate and distant. The shots that do track or are in motion, are slow, and precise, but monotonous at times by today’s standards.
Again, This film almost doesn’t want you to watch it. It lacks hope.
I will move on to the ‘moments’. The Lead actor Ethan Hawke gives one of the best performances of the year with this character. And again his performance is muted, it’s not flashy or explosive his characters moments are displayed with disdain and without care. Early on we learn about a loss that he dealt with, no tears, but in his eyes you can see the infection of despair dormant. The moments of him by himself and his journal are read aloud more then they are shown. It shoots him from afar, and only his notebook and pen get the close up. A ‘moment’ of a characters death is even shoot from afar. The biggest ‘moment’ the character has besides the ending, is a conversation he has that leads him to cry. The film doesn’t even care to frame him so you can see his sadness finally coming out, instead his hands cover his face, the framing is cluttered and filled, its shot impersonal. These ‘moments’ aren’t even moments in the films execution, its all muted, hollow, without hope. That for me, is true despair.
Now to the Screenplay. The script is where most people see this film, and rightfully so, its the loudest piece of this puzzle. The Screenplay viewed by most, screams at you. It screams about religion, it screams about environmentalism, it screams at how we are ruining the very earth that allows us to breathe, The capitalism, the fraud, the waste, the greed, the sickness that humanity is, It grabs you by the collar and screams in your face, Take responsibility.
That is the film most are seeing, and I understand it, people see a film and everything said or that transpires in it, becomes a message from the creator.
I didn’t see this film as a outcry for environmentalism, or greed, or religion. To me the film is very clearly a character study, a film about a man, who like I’ve said before is sick. The film is about despair and how it grows and spreads, how contagious it is, how impersonal it can be and how hopeless you can get.
I have so much more to say, but I will stop here. I don’t think you will enjoy this movie. It doesn’t care to entertain you, it ends ruining the expectations it sets for itself, it doesn’t show you the moments you probably imagined, If you care an ounce about the earth it will depress you, if you are religious it will question your faith, and if you’ve ever felt depression in your life, it will remind you of how slippery that downward spiral is. The film is slow, patient, and precise, it only simmers, never boils. The visuals are muted, and most will probably fail to see its mastery. I am almost confident in saying its not for you. You will more than likely be blind to its beauty.
This film was made for only one specific kind of viewer. Chances are its not you, but then again, if you are like me, it might be one of the best films you have ever seen.