Empty"Loot" begins with the feel of a shaggy-dog tale, a portrait of quirky, misguided dreamers on a wild goose chase into the past. But as the docu's subjects pursue their buried World War II treasure, director Darius Marder gets beneath the surface in ever-surprising, deeply affecting ways. With his first film, a world premiere selection in the Los Angeles Film Festival's Documentary Competition, Marder has made a work of devastating emotional power, a lament on the silence between fathers and sons and a harrowing look at soldiers' memories and the dark side of the Greatest Generation.
At the center of the questionable adventure is Utah resident Lance Larson, a fortyish father of four and self-described “rainbow chaser” whose entrepreneurial ventures have included used cars, solar-powered lawn Santas and glow-in-the-dark flower doodads. “My dad does a lot of different things,” eldest son Michael says with the same slightly amused, mostly blank affect that characterizes Lance. A weary-eyed blond who looks like a past-his-prime surfer, Lance is a man with a remarkably high threshold for self-doubt.
The film follows his missions to help two WWII vets recover the loot they hid in the midst of war, one in Austria, the other in the Philippines. The two men don't know each other, and live very different lives, but in their waning days, they're both obsessed with finding out “the end of the story,” as one of them puts it. Audiences will question Lance's undertaking long before he does. A goofy resilience pushes him on, giving way to something deeper: As much as he's looking for a payday, Lance is helping these men grapple with ghosts.
Marder intercuts the hunts, which proceed in fits and starts, without making the precise chronology clear. What does become apparent is that these former soldiers have far more in common than stolen treasure - more than any fictional narrative would dare propose - and that the harrowing personal losses they've endured off the battlefield have an urgent resonance for Lance. The impact of the quietly observant film builds until the unlikeliest of elements - an old Broadway tune, an empty garage, a conversation about fenders - detonate with long-buried emotion, anguished and tender.
Production company: A.D.D. Studios
Featuring: Lance Larson, Andrew Seventy, Darrel Ross, Michael Larson. Director/producer/editor: Darius Marder. Executive producer: Dan Campbell. Cinematographers: Anson Call, Darius Marder. Music: Max Avery Lichtenstein. Film Sales Company
No MPAA rating, 88 minutes.