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A minimalist portrait of contemporary American malaise, Gray House marks the first semi-fictional feature effort from writer-director Austin Lynch (son of David Lynch) and his co-creator/cinematographer Matthew Booth, who scoured the landscape to capture five unrelated stories of struggle, survival and bleak day-to-day living.
“Stories” is definitely an overstatement, though, as this highly conceptual mood piece, which toes the line between documentary and gallery filmmaking, shows a lot more than it tells and never quite connects the dots between anything onscreen. Rather, Lynch and Booth give us a series of exquisitely photographed scenes in different settings, offering up a fragmented vision of America distilled by moments of hushed beauty and topographical unease.
Even in Lynchian terms, Gray House may seem impenetrable to many viewers and will most likely remain on the festival circuit after a world premiere at CPH:DOX in Denmark and a special screening at the Cinema du Reel fest in Paris. But a certain curiosity factor, plus cameos by French stars Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) and Aurore Clement (Apocalypse Now), could land it at a few scattered art houses and museums.
Without program notes detailing where each sequence is set, one would be hard-pressed to explain that the opening scene, which features Lavant as a lone fisherman riding the waters at dawn, takes place in Texas, or that the handful of interviews with oil workers is set in North Dakota (although some of them do mention the town of Williston, N.D., which has seen a major fracking boom in recent years). Even with some explanation, it’s not always easy to see what, if anything, connects one part to the other, if it’s not a certain depiction of America’s blighted working class.
In true Lynch fashion, the film is less concerned with providing a clear narrative thread than with immersing the viewer in a collection of unsettling environments — whether it’s the burning oil plains, a women’s prison tucked away in Oregon, a bucolic cabin in Virginia (in what could be construed as the film’s only “upbeat” sequence), or a glass house in Los Angeles that looks like the setting for a murder scene in Mulholland Drive.
If there’s anything linking these diverse spaces, it’s the way director of photography Booth captures them using naturally lit, impeccably framed compositions, cutting between extreme wide shots and close-ups (for the interview sequences), and occasionally pushing in with the camera in creepy, thriller-like fashion. The sound design can also be unnerving at times, whether it’s a menacing pulse heard in the background or a house alarm that won’t stop beeping.
Both Lavant and Clement appear in scenes where they never say a word and are hard to even visualize, so it’s difficult to say what they really bring to the table here. On the other hand, some of the oil workers and female prisoners — especially one serving a life sentence — offer up moving testimonies about their hard-knock lives. In such scenes, it seems that Gray House not only describes the forgotten places where these people reside, but an entire American landscape marked by a sense of isolation and disquiet.
Production company: Beechvibes
Cast: Denis Lavant, Dianna Molzan, Aurore Clement
Director-screenwriter: Austin Lynch
Producers: Joe Graham-Felsen, Elda Bravo, Sabrina S. Sutherland, Jeremy Alter, Austin Lynch
Executive producers: Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Georgtina Teran, Dominique Vanderg
Director of photography: Matthew Booth
Production designer: Ruth de Jong
Costume designer: Lizz Wasserman
Editors: Austin Lynch, Matthew Booth
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