The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


The Innkeepers

In shooting the horror film, House of the Devil (2009), Ti West and his crew stayed at a historic 19th century hotel called the Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut. When a big studio ghost movie West was scheduled to direct fell through at the last minute, this location became the inspiration for his own low-budget one. The resulting film, The Innkeepers (2012), uses the architecture of the sprawling hotel – its long corridors, maze-like staircase, and pitch-black, cavernous basement – to create a sense of suspense in telling the story of two slackers who work at the haunted hotel.

Ti West has become one of the leading young indie directors making horror films today. What distinguishes his work, especially The Innkeepers, is his concern for rich characterization, as well as the intriguing ways he riffs on the genre. The film has a formal elegance, which is evident in how West deals with the location spatially through careful framing and mobile camera work. The opening credit sequence contains a montage of historical photos of the interior and exterior of the hotel, set to a Bernard Hermann-like score by Jeff Grace. The film is divided into chapters, conveyed through titles that suggest silent cinema.

In a high-angled wide shot, a young woman, Claire (Sara Paxton) walks toward the imposing building. It’s the final weekend before the hotel is scheduled to go out of business. As Claire hangs up her winter parka, her co-worker, Luke (Pat Healy), saunters out, eating a stick of beef jerky. He says ominously, “So this is it, huh, just you and me . . . end of days?” Shortly after this, Luke insists he has something to show her on his laptop. As she stares at the screen and the camera moves in on an image of an empty rocking chair, Claire receives a scary jolt, which causes her to gasp for breath and reach for her asthma inhaler. West shows that he knows how easy it is to frighten an audience with cheap tricks, but the relationship between the two of employees is really what lies at the heart of The Innkeepers.

The contrast between them can be seen in their hairstyles. The older Luke sports a huge curl on top of his head that makes him look like a Kewpie doll, while Claire’s short blond hair is chopped off unevenly, as if someone gave her a haircut using garden shears. Luke is passive-aggressive. He concocts paranormal experiments involving evp recordings for the benefit of Claire, whom he secretly has a crush on. At the same time, in his dealings with her, he tries to hide this as best he can by adopting a cynical and grouchy veneer. He also gets his rocks off by constantly scaring her, so that he comes across as an annoying older brother.

When a well-known TV and film actress, Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), checks into the hotel and Claire gets overly excited, Luke appears to be indifferent. He shoves her hotel receipt at Claire disdainfully, and says, “Well, here’s your autograph, just relax.” But right after that, as she optimistically details her desire to make contact with ghosts on this final weekend of the haunted hotel, he gawks at her, as if moonstruck.

Claire’s relationship with the actress is equally conflicted. When Claire delivers towels to her room, an arm sticks out of the bathroom door, as the hotel worker swoons from such close proximity to a celebrity. The actress then seductively steps out from the shower with only a towel wrapped around her. “I’m a really big fan of yours,” Claire suddenly blurts out. The actress asks, “And what do you do?” The question causes panic in Claire, who stammers, “I’m kind of like, you know, in between stuff.”

Claire becomes distraught over the interaction, and admits to Luke, that “She kind of made me feel like an asshole.” Claire asks him, “Why do people have to have such high expectations?” He responds, “Everything happens for a reason, Claire. Nobody just ends up at the Yankee Pedlar.” That fatalistic comment might serve as the film’s mantra, especially once Claire becomes obsessed with finding the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, who committed suicide at the hotel and now haunts the place.

Leanne Rease-Jones turns out to have forsaken acting and is now a clairvoyant. Virtually everything she says is loaded with innuendo. Brandishing a crystal pendulum, she warns Claire, “You mustn’t go down into the basement,” before suddenly becoming evasive. Yet what good is it to foresee the future if you can’t do anything to change it? It’s the hotel’s third and final guest – an old man (George Riddle) with the craggy face of a walrus and a voice from the crypt – who ultimately sets the film on the path to horror. For nostalgic reasons, he insists on staying in the honeymoon suite on the closed third floor despite the fact that the room no longer has any furniture other than a bed.

If horror remains the main attraction of The Innkeepers for most viewers, the film exhibits a great sense of humor, so it’s not surprising that West refers to it as “a charming workplace comedy,” in which the horror element “kind of raises the stakes.” At one point, as she works the night shift, Claire becomes so frightened that she awakens Luke, but when he finally invites her into his room and she glimpses him in his underwear, she suddenly has second thoughts. Lena Dunham also makes a cameo as a barista with boyfriend issues. After Claire returns from her trip to the coffee shop minus a latte, Luke asks, “Does that annoying girl still work there?”

Sara Paxton and Pat Healy do a terrific job of conveying both the frustrations of their lowly status and the unresolved tensions in their relationship. Claire approaches situations with wide-eyed enthusiasm, even if she’s easily deflated, while Luke has conceded defeat years ago and has resigned himself to his fate. The most he can hope for in life, as Claire discovers, is watching online porn. Early on, Claire asks him whether he regrets dropping out of college. In a weary intonation, he responds, “Every day.”

It’s hard not to chuckle throughout The Innkeepers at the witty dialogue and all the odd little details of characterization. True horror fans might be disappointed with West’s more classical and stylized approach to a ghost movie and references to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), but the film’s real innovation lies in the clever ways it deliberately plays against the more clichéd expectations of the genre.

Posted 24 July, 2012

The Dish & the Spoon

Alison Bagnall’s The Dish & the Spoon (2012) contains elements not usually found in low budget independent films: children’s nursery rhymes, antiques, colonial history, period costumes and dancing, 19th century literature, references to early cross-dressers, and flights of fantasy that mix with a more familiar naturalism. The film stars Greta Gerwig and features indie standouts Eleonore Hendricks and Amy Seinmetz in small roles, along with Adam Rothenberg.

Bagnall and Gerwig had written a script together in which the female actor was to play the lead role, but it fell through at the last moment due to issues of financing. With Gerwig’s career about to take off following her breakthrough performance in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010), Bagnall came up with a new story. She and co-writer Andrew Lewis wrote a script for Gerwig and the young British actor, Olly Alexander, whom the director had discovered in an audition for the larger budget film.

Bagnall explains: “So in this story that fell out of the night, I imagined a woman, freaking out from a marital crisis, and this British boy who is as much an apparition as he is real. And how he becomes a sort of guardian angel and witness to her insanity and he helps her just by being there, but he also gets drawn in by her.” The actors were given a great deal of latitude with their characters, altering the script in discussions before shooting and adapting scenes to the site-specific locations of an off-season beach town in Delaware. It’s hardly surprising that much of the pleasure of The Dish & the Spoon derives from the inspired performances of Gerwig and Alexander, who have script credits for providing additional material.

The film begins with an extended shot driving through a tunnel. Framed from behind, Rose (Gerwig), who’s wearing a red woolen hat and a baggy winter coat over her pajamas, sobs to a ringing cell phone, which she angrily chucks out the window of her station wagon. At a general store, she uses her remaining change and crumpled bills to buy doughnuts and beer. As she plops herself down and gulps a beer inside a stone observation tower on the coast, she discovers a teenager curled up and shivering on an upstairs landing. She initially tries to take the boy to a hospital, but he refuses to go and suggests she’s drunk. The scrawny young man has a British accent, a tailored pea coat, tight-fitting high waters, and long disheveled hair that makes him look like a young Bob Dylan.

At a restaurant, the lad pretends to be Ishmael and begins reciting the opening passage of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, while Rose, who misses the allusion, averts her eyes, looks away, and makes a face. She finally interrupts and asks, “Do you have any place I can take you?” He responds coyly, “Where do you live?” Rose shakes her head from side to side. “Nope, nope,” she tells him emphatically, “I need to take you somewhere.” He tells her he’s a rent boy, a term he has to explain. When she doesn’t believe him, he asks, “What? Am I not attractive enough to be a male prostitute?”

After admitting he’s only kidding, the teen tells a series of tales about himself, including that he’s been abandoned by a girlfriend after waiting six hours for her “like a spoon,” so that it’s impossible to determine what’s fantasy from what’s real. He adds telling details, such as that his girlfriend wasn’t as pretty as he remembered. When Rose interrupts him again, he tells her, “You’re much prettier than she is . . . was.” As Rose becomes even more frustrated and he flirts, the teen takes a sip of his hot chocolate, so that he has a milk mustache from the whipped cream.

The Dish & the Spoon involves the continually shifting dynamic between the unlikely pair. Rose has just discovered that her husband cheated on her with a yoga instructor named Emma (Hendricks). She vents her anger by leaving threatening phone messages on answering machines and showing up at Emma’s house wanting to kill her, which unnerves her teen companion.

Rose and the boy hang out together and get drunk on a brewery tour. He continues to tell stories about himself. At Rose’s summer cottage, when he talks about being the only boy at school who hadn’t  reached puberty at sixteen, Rose laughs uproariously and guesses that part is true, causing the nameless teenager to end the game abruptly. Whoever he is, the teen wears fashionable clothes and has money in his wallet, which the penniless Rose needs. Although the two appear to bond, she’s not beyond stealing from him or sticking him with the bill.

Rose’s anger at men turns decidedly mean. At one point, she dresses the cute teen in women’s clothes, lipstick, and nail polish and the two of them reverse gender roles. As he sits on a bench in drag, she strolls by, dressed like a man and wearing a tie, and picks him up. It’s at this point that the element of fantasy, games, and role playing veers into psychodrama when she abuses the young man by kissing him roughly and demeaning him. Although Rose later apologizes, her behavior feels downright cruel and a bit too real, as she plays a psychological mind game.

Still dressed as a man, Rose calls Emma on the phone. When she reaches her answering machine, Rose now takes on the role of her adulterer husband. She tells Emma, “My wife, she’s crying all the time, but I don’t want you to think it’s your fault, baby. It’s not your fault. My wife is crazy, crazy before this ever happened . . . She was always flying off the handle and, you know, she got so fat . . . it was disgusting.” Rose continues sarcastically, “You didn’t cause it. You’re beautiful and perfect. You teach yoga. You’re hot.” She ends on an ominous note, “By the time you get this message, I hope my wife is dead.” Rose is clearly becoming unhinged, and shortly after this, she contemplates suicide, but the beach entrance is closed.

Rose rebounds afterward. She tells the teenager: “I have a plan. The plan is it’s just you and me.” As they hold hands, he takes her to a dance hall, where he plays the piano, while she tap dances. When Rose later asks him why he never smiles, he reveals that he’s ashamed of his teeth, which he then bares to the camera at some length, creating another naked moment. The two eventually kiss more tenderly and, like young kids, fantasize getting married and having ten children. They even go to a costume shop and dress in period costumes – he looks like a dandy – and have a mock wedding picture taken, but it’s all a whimsical game.

Gerwig and Alexander are mesmerizing to watch, especially when it feels as if, in terms of their performances, they are at times walking a very thin tightrope without a safety net. The circus metaphor is somehow apt. The two provide a stark contrast. In her baggy clothes and exaggerated outbursts either on the phone or outside Emma’s house, Rose seems to be channeling Gena Rowlands and rants like a petulant clown, while the nameless teen wears extremely large and narrow shoes that make him walk like a hobo.

Bagnall, who co-wrote Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998), is not afraid to deal with intense emotions. Although Rose has been cheated on, her reaction seems so extreme that it becomes comedic. And the smitten teen is so unabashedly romantic that he also sets himself up to be a doormat once he falls for Rose and follows her around like a devoted puppy dog. In fact, as his opening monologue indicates, he’s very much a refugee from a bygone era. His flights of fantasy, while endearing, are at odds with his own situation, a melancholy young British kid alone and adrift in a nearly deserted American resort town before the Christmas holidays.

Shot by Mark Schwartzbard, who uses light to imbue the setting with a sense of magic, The Dish & the Spoon feels influenced by vaudeville as much as other indie films – from the work of Cassavetes to Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (2006). Yet, at heart, the film remains an intriguing character study. Bagnall, who had watched the two main actors do an improv together, remarks: “I liked the way they looked next to each other, and during the improv Olly revealed this provocative insolence, which triggered a prickly, somewhat merciless response in Greta that was really compelling to watch.”

In The Dish & the Spoon, which has been released on DVD, we sense that the psychological complexity of the main characters stems precisely from the way the two actors are constantly testing the limits of each other’s personal boundaries. They are playing a game of “chicken,” in which neither one flinches.

Posted 17 June, 2012

For Ellen

So Yong Kim’s For Ellen (2012) begins with an illuminated directional road sign at night, followed by a close-up of the darkened face of Joby Taylor (Paul Dano) as rock music blasts from the car’s CD player. The image suddenly explodes into sharper focus when he lights the cigarette dangling from his mouth. As the exhausted rock musician tries to eat something the next morning after driving all night, the food falls into his lap, causing his car to swerve out of control on the snowy road. For Ellen is Kim’s third feature after In Between Days (2006) and Treeless Mountain (2009), two films that established her reputation as a major visual stylist and one of the most intriguing new American independent filmmakers working today. Like her earlier films, For Ellen explores the effects of the breakup of a family. In this case, it looks at a deadbeat dad, not as inexplicable absence and gaping hole in a daughter’s heart, as in In Between Days, but from his point of view.

The purpose of Joby Taylor’s long car trip soon becomes apparent, when he meets with lawyers and his estranged wife, Claire (Margarita Levieva), who is seeking a legal settlement and wishes to have no communication with him during the proceedings. He stammers, “We’re both adults now, right Claire? We can work this out.” When the signing is postponed for a day in order to give him more time to look over the court documents, Joby asks to have coffee with Claire, but she bluntly refuses. He follows her out to her car and tries to cajole her “for Ellen’s sake,” but, as Claire drives off, he shouts, “You fucking serious? Get the fuck out of here. I don’t even want to talk to you.” For emphasis, he kicks and spits at her car and curses at Claire.

Kim uses images and sound to convey Joby’s state of mind. For nearly a minute afterward, he sits in his car and appears to down some pills. This is followed by a shot of him checking into a motel, an extended wide shot of a couple of cars traversing the highway at dusk, an extreme close-up of his eye, a house fly, fragmented shots of his body, including his lips, before the fly crawls into his ear, causing him to jolt up in bed. It’s a sequence right out of a horror movie, but it might also be a reference to an early Yoko Ono and John Lennon film. With headphones on, Joby rocks out to music under the warm glow of incandescent light in his motel room. He plays pool at a local tavern and ends up embracing an attractive woman, followed by an exterior shot of a snowy field with trees and power lines in the background.

At a meeting with his inexperienced lawyer, Fred Butler (Jon Heder), the next morning, it soon becomes evident that Joby must sign over custody of his young daughter to receive a half-share of the house (for which he hasn’t actually made any payments). “You’re the lawyer,” he tells Fred in disbelief, “isn’t there something you can do.” He phones Claire and turns up at her house, where he spies Ellen inside and experiences pangs of guilt. He then calls Fred and insists that he needs to spend time with his daughter. He whines, “I mean . . . this is so unfair. Why does Claire get everything?”

The soft-spoken rock musician initially appears well-meaning. Like a child prone to temper tantrums, however, he has the capacity to explode into rage when he doesn’t get his way, first with Claire and then with a band member on the phone. As he paces outside his motel, Joby tells a fellow musician that he wants to “start re-tracking and add a little more heart to the songs.” He insists, “We need some real shit.” When the guy doesn’t buy it, Joby shouts into his cell phone: “You’re nothing without me. I’m the front man. I’m the fucking singer. What the fuck are you going to do without me? I’m fucking Joby Taylor. I am Snake Trouble. I started this fucking band. You don’t talk to me that way.” And he’s not beyond threatening Claire after she turns down his request to see Ellen.

Fred, who has picked up a copy of Joby’s first album at a yard sale, invites his client over to his house where his mother has cooked lasagna. She asks Joby a great many personal questions at dinner, causing discomfort. The awkwardness is momentarily broken when Joby invites Fred to go to a bar. After a beer and a couple of shots and a smoke outside, Joby suddenly breaks into a suggestive dance number and mouths Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night.” His rendition is so over the top and narcissistic that it freaks out the young lawyer. As Joby leans back a the bar as if nodding out, Fred asks him whether he’s okay, but Joby responds curtly, “Yes, I’m fine.” When Joby buries his head on the counter, Fred wonders whether he should call a cab, but the rocker snarls, “No I don’t want you to call a fucking cab. I want you to go.”

With its bizarre mood swings, the bar scene is one of the highlights of Kim’s film, especially in the way the erotic undercurrent of Joby’s rendition of the heavy metal song manages to seduce and repel at the same time. A master of the double message, Joby does eventually get to spend brief time with Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) after he plays his trump card. During their visit, he talks to the sweet but skeptical child more like a nervous stranger than a parent. Although Joby tries to play the role of interested father, he doesn’t exactly fit the part. With his greasy hair, painted fingernails, hoodie, leather jacket, piercings, tattoos, and wisp of a goatee, Joby looks decidedly out of place in either a toy store or playground.

Kim’s painful and engaging For Ellen is a skeletal narrative with only a smidgen of plot. It’s essentially a character study that focuses almost entirely on Joby. You can see the appeal of the role for an accomplished actor like Dano – he’s virtually the whole show. It’s almost as if Kim, for whom the subject has personal relevance – she met her own father as a four-year-old when he showed up unexpectedly – is trying to fathom this character through the power of observation and by embedding him within the frozen landscape of the film’s setting.

Kim shoots Joby in extended takes, suggesting that if we watch him closely enough, he might suddenly reveal the mystery behind his self-absorbed behavior. Despite how often he looks at himself in mirrors throughout the film, Joby can’t really see himself. When he tells Ellen, “I want what’s best for you,” quite sadly we grasp that he’s confusing the pronoun.

Posted 13 June, 2012

The Color Wheel

Alex Ross Perry’s sophomore feature The Color Wheel (2011) has a tendency to polarize critics – sometimes even the same critic, as if he or she might be suffering from bipolar disorder. The film comes at you with a certain velocity – often from left field. At times it shocks by being in-your-face politically incorrect. Yet The Color Wheel exudes a certain shaggy dog charm, even as it deliberately attempts to disturb and provoke viewers. It bills itself as an “objectionable comedy about disappointment and forgiveness.”

The Color Wheel tells the story of an estranged brother and sister, Colin (Alex Ross Perry) and JR (co-writer Carlen Altman) who go on a road trip together, ostensibly to retrieve some of her belongings from her Journalism professor (Bob Byington) with whom she’s had, as far as the family is concerned, a rather scandalous affair. Colin’s girlfriend, Zoe (Ry Russo-Young) questions why he would even bother to help his sister. He responds: “You know, you don’t have any siblings, so you have no frame of reference for what it’s like when one of them asks for a favor.” JR is apparently the black sheep in the family. At least Colin, for his own personal reasons, chooses to portray her that way. This is a case of sibling rivalry that, considering that they’re now in their twenties, seems mired in adolescence. Throughout their road trip, the two of them constantly bicker like a couple stuck in a bad marriage without a divorce option.

JR is something of a mess. Although very attractive, she has low self-esteem. Her aspirations to be a TV anchor lead her to have an affair with her professor, who belittles her for being incredibly immature when she and Colin finally show up at his house to retrieve a couple of boxes of her stuff. She ridicules him for not helping her get a job in the business as promised, while he berates her for never picking up the check at a restaurant. When JR later spots a television personality at a diner, she makes a complete fool of herself by seeking career advice. The woman tells her bluntly: “You know, off the top of my head, don’t interrupt people while they’re eating.” JR is later lured to a party of her snotty old school chums by the prospect of meeting an agent from Los Angeles. After she’s grilled about her career aspirations, JR fibs that she’s actually working as a nurse while auditioning for jobs in major markets. As she performs the role of being a news anchor for several of her former classmates, she proves to be quite terrible by continually flubbing her lines.

On the car trip, Colin gloats over the fact that his parents took him on a vacation to Puerto Rico and didn’t invite JR. It’s later revealed that the family also neglected to inform her about an aunt’s death, lest she might actually turn up at the funeral. Like the Journalism professor, Colin uses language to bludgeon her into submission, but, like a carnival knockdown doll, she keeps popping back up. If anything, JR’s resilience is her major strength. Although Colin relishes his superior position, he has his own serious flaws. For one thing, his writing career apparently isn’t going anywhere either. Both at the professor’s house and party, he rather quickly winds up crumpled on the floor – if he were a boxer, he’d be hitting the canvas before his opponent even threw a punch. He’s also been in a loveless relationship with Zoe for several years, and has his own sexual frustrations, as evidenced by the hand job he angles for and doesn’t receive before embarking on the trip.

Shot on grainy black-and-white 16mm film by Sean Price Williams, The Color Wheel is essentially a highly complex character study that takes the form of a road movie. Colin and JR stay overnight at a motel run by a religious zealot, visit the professor’s house, party with old classmates, and finally take a detour to a relative’s nearby cabin. It’s a journey of mutual self-discovery, but one that’s steeped in humiliation. Their trip involves a sudden realization that their dreams are not exactly working out as planned. This becomes apparent at the party, where Colin shows up carrying a pineapple and the two are quickly relegated to pathetic comic figures. Although the film was apparently fully scripted, the constant banter between JR and Colin feels completely natural, as if invented on the spot. Colin’s spiteful condemnation of JR and her failings stems from his own insecurities that are as vast as hers. And while the barbed exchanges between them are often very funny, the result is actually the kind of laughter that hurts.

Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel cuts much deeper than most independent films, which is its major strength. Although the clues have been carefully planted, the extended climax, which lasts for nine minutes, nonetheless packs the wallop of a perfectly executed sucker punch.

Postscript: I first saw The Color Wheel at the 2011 Wisconsin Film Festival last April. It opened last week at the BAMcinématek and is currently playing at the Cinema Village in New York before screening at other theatrical venues around the country.

Posted 28 May, 2012

Sun Don’t Shine

Indie actress and producer Amy Seimetz’s first feature Sun Don’t Shine (2012) received considerable buzz when it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March. Given Seimetz’s acting background, it might be expected that the film would contain terrific performances, but, for me, the real surprise turns out to be the film’s assured and poetic visual style. Sun Don’t Shine (you have to love the title) is a character study – a film noir-like road movie set in the intense heat and blazing sun of the filmmaker’s home state of Florida. Seimetz has indicated that the genesis of the film was a dream, so it’s little wonder that Sun Don’t Shine, which plays with a number of different genres including suspense and horror, feels very much like an extended nightmare.

The film begins with a shot of a young woman aptly named Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil). Her head jerks up into the frame against a pure blue sky, as she frantically gasps for air. She’s in the midst of a violent scuffle with a young construction worker named Leo (Kentucker Audley). As she slaps and flails at him with dogged intensity, he defends himself by throwing her in the mud, knocking her down, and then shoving her up against the car. “We don’t need to keep talking about this,” he tells her, “but we need to keep going.” Once they’re in the car, he tries to placate her with a kiss, but she accuses him of trying to strangle her. After a long stare, he apologizes for breaking her cell phone. Crystal takes off her blouse, dangles it out the window like a homemade kite flapping in the breeze, before eventually letting go of it.

It soon becomes obvious that the pair are in some type of deep trouble. We’re not sure exactly why, but it’s clear that Crystal is not really helping the situation. Leo insists that they need to visit his friend Terry’s bar – a four or five hour drive away. Crystal becomes jealous and accuses Terry (Kit Gwin) of being his girlfriend, which he denies. Once in the car, she wants to go to a motel room and make love to Leo. He’s in a state of panic about the situation, and ignores her attempts at seduction. There’s something very child-like about Crystal’s responses – she appears to be regressing under the pressure and weight of events. She insists that he doesn’t want to make love to her because she has a daughter and big hips, while Leo tries his best to ignore her remarks.

As they argue, things get even more tense when their car overheats on the sweltering highway and an overzealous Good Samaritan (AJ Bowen) insists on helping them, despite Leo’s protestations and attempts to get rid of him. As the film progresses, we learn incremental details of the missing back story, after strong clues are revealed in the glove compartment and the trunk of their car. I’m not sure whether it ruins the film to know what has set this reckless couple on their road journey, but I won’t say any more. Sun Don’t Shine contains a skeletal plot, but that’s much less important than the interaction between the two main characters, which develops into an intense psychodrama.

Kate Lyn Sheil has appeared in a number of recent indie films previously, including Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Sophia Takal’s Green and Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets and The Zone, but this strikes me as her best performance to date. Her character becomes increasingly unglued as the film moves forward, causing multiple personalities to surface: an obsessed lover, a little girl with a love of mermaids, a highly jealous seductress, a liar, and a pretty scary person. There’s something about how seamlessly she transforms into so many different people that’s very unsettling, as if reality can shift on a dime. At one point, she shares her improbable fantasies of their future life together. She tells Leo, “I want to go on a boat with you, or an airplane.” When she looks forward to the two of them going grocery shopping together, Leo asks: “What made you think of that?” She responds: “Boats?”

Crystal begins to read off the names of the various motels as they drive past them and reminisces about a mermaid theatrical show she saw as a child, as we see images of various motels, a peacock, and dazzling shots of fish and mermaids swimming underwater. As she continues to read the signs, Leo finally asks her to stop. She doesn’t, but exults in a motel that happens to bear her name: Crystal Palms. But once they arrive at their destination, she becomes even more sullen, as jealousy kicks in, which is initially conveyed through close-ups on her face and very subtle movements of her eyes. Leo’s attempts to help Crystal seem noble at first, but he has his own demons, which are only revealed once the two of them arrive at Terry’s house.

After a highly revealing sex scene, Leo insists that they go to the bar. Once there, Crystal tells him a convoluted story about a co-worker who stole her lipstick, but Leo simply gets up and goes to the bar for a whiskey as she trails after him and tries to finish her story. He again walks away from her over to the jukebox, but she follows and comes on to him as if nothing has happened and pretends to be picking him up for the first time. The scene suddenly becomes highly stylized as a result of colored gels. As country music plays softly in the background, you suddenly want to believe in their relationship, as they walk out of the bar with their arms wrapped around each other and their shadows reflected on the green grass.

Sun Don’t Shine recalls a number of other movies – from Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) to Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994), but it only resonates even more as a result of the references it conjures up for the viewer. With an economy of means, Seimetz is able to create a remarkable degree of suspense. The film, which was originally shot in 16mm by cinematographer Jay Keitel, also contains lyrical and abstract passages that were shot both outside and inside the car. Early on, as it rains and the inside of the car steams up, Crystal draws a heart on the front windshield that slowly fades in the light. When Leo later drives off alone to rendezvous with Terry, the car lights illuminating the inside of the tent gradually dim and then disappear, turning Crystal’s sad face into a dark silhouette.

In Amy Seimetz’s haunting debut feature, Sun Don’t Shine, geography and climate impact the core of its characters, suggesting that Florida is really a state of mind. Sadly, it’s not love that binds these intimate strangers together, as they desperately try to navigate their troubled lives in a vast landscape of swampland under the harsh summer sun. Rather, it’s a sense of mutual blame.

Posted 18 May, 2012

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