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South African writer-director Oliver Hermanus leaves aside the social realism of his well-received films Shirley Adams and Beauty to draw inspiration from the archetypal characters and situations of midcentury Hollywood in his third feature, The Endless River. At least that seems like the plan for the first of the three chapters in this visually striking slow-burn melodrama. Too bad it slides midway into manneristic emotional opaqueness, studied ambiguity and withheld resolution that feels as French as the story’s stranger in a hostile land.
The vintage studio-style opening titles accompanied by composer Braam du Toit‘s swelling strings seem to suggest that Hermanus is muscling in on cine-fetishistic Todd Haynes territory. And the huge widescreen vistas of rural Riviersonderend on the Western Cape, spread out under massive Montana-size skies, might almost have been lifted right out of a John Ford picture.
But the story is quintessentially South African, juxtaposing local and outsider perspectives on the country’s legacy of violence, anger and sorrow. The trouble is, Hermanus sacrifices much of that social context by self-consciously stripping dialogue and exposition down to the bone, also limiting his characters’ psychological complexity in the process.
Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) is a sweet-natured black waitress at a gas station diner. Her husband, Percy (Clayton Evertson), has just been released from a four-year jail term. Tiny’s stern, hard-bitten mother (Denise Newman, who starred in Shirley Adams) lays down the law about Percy staying away from his former gang buddies, and he promises he’s ready to be a good husband. But pretty soon he’s back to boozing with his shady friends at a local bar every night, causing Tiny to despair.
One of her occasional customers at the diner is Gilles (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a French ex-pat living on an isolated farm with his wife and two preteen sons. In a scene of startling brutality rendered more chilling by being shown in silence aside from the brooding score, Gilles’ wife is savagely raped and murdered by three masked intruders who also shoot the two boys.
Gilles falls apart, consumed by rage, grief and the desire for revenge. When Tiny also suffers a loss the two are drawn into a hesitant — and increasingly absurd — union that takes them across the vast and changing landscape, in search of what is unclear. Vendetta? Escape? Healing? Certainly not answers.
Hermanus and cinematographer Chris Lotz convey a vivid sense of damaged people navigating their pain by shooting them in probing closeup or placing them against sprawling natural settings of mountains, grassy plains, forests, oceans or lakes. Purely in terms of its arrestingly composed look, the movie is a stunner. And both Duvauchelle and Roberts are compelling presences, less thanks to the writing than to performances that shift between watchful silences and howling sadness.
But there’s something inherently unsatisfying about a movie that strides into investigative mode and then appears to lose interest in favor of murky romance tinged with the danger of innocence and guilt intermingling. Likewise the way it sets up the foundations of a thriller only to abandon them. And the affectation of three chapters named for Gilles, Percy and Tiny, in that order, doesn’t really work when the filmmaker remains so insistent on concealment. Percy is hardly more than the generic outline of a worthless ex-con.
Racially motivated farm murders are a common occurrence in South Africa. However, this never really comes up in scenes between Gilles and the taciturn local police captain (Darren Klefkens). So rather than sketching in the intended subtext about enduring tensions feeding an endless cycle of violence, the vicious crime that is the catalyst for a story of retribution and possible forgiveness ends up seeming merely sensationalistic.
By so assiduously focusing on style at the expense of thematic clarity, Hermanus cheapens the tragedy and robs it of significance.
Cast: Nicolas Duvauchelle, Crystal-Donna Roberts, Clayton Evertson, Denise Newman, Darren Kelfkens, Katia Lekarski
Production companies: Swift Productions, Moonlighting STU Productions
Director-screenwriter: Oliver Hermanus
Producers: Didier Costet, Marvin Saven, Genevieve Hofmeyr
Executive producers: Basil Ford, Katinka Schumann, Toni Breiss, Martien Uyttendaele, Olivier Mortagne
Director of photography: Chris Lotz
Production designer: Franz Lewis
Costume designer: Reza Levy
Music: Braam du Toit
Editor: George Hanmer
Casting: Moonyeenn Lee
Sales: Urban Distribution Intl.
No rating, 110 minutes.
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