'Quicksilver Chronicles': Film Review

Visions du Reel
Tender tribute to self-reliant siblings takes a hauntingly tragic turn.

The U.S.-produced documentary by Russian-born co-directors Ben Guez and Sasha Kulak bowed in a sidebar at Switzerland's Visions du Reel.

California dreams are ripped at the seams in Ben Guez and Sasha Kulak's Quicksilver Chronicles, a winning portrait of two aging siblings' defiant, anachronistic eccentricity and the ghostly former company town where they reside. One of the more accomplished world premieres at Switzerland's long-running, nonfiction-oriented Visions du Reel festival this month, its accessibility, sensitivity and streak of dry, dark humor should ensure favorable receptions among programmers of similar-themed events over the coming months.

A sympathetic delve into the private lives of ornery off-gridders, the film is somewhat in the lineage of the Maysles' brothers seminal Grey Gardens (1975). For the first 50 minutes of its economic 74-minute running time, it provides a privileged chance to get up close and personal with a pair of charismatic protagonists who are intelligent, idiosyncratic and articulate but also evidently troubled. A former violinist and pioneering female mariachi who later made waves as a journalist specializing in environmental issues (the pic's title is taken from a book she published in 2012), Kate Woods was instrumental in persuading the EPA to clean up a polluted mercury mine site in New Idria, roughly halfway between Monterey and Fresno.

This spookily, ruggedly beautiful middle-of-nowhere location was where she also lived for years with her brother Kemp and various four-legged pets in an amiably chaotic domestic setup. As depicted here, the garrulous, freewheelingly creative pair suffer from various physical and mental challenges but are ferociously determined to remain as independent as possible as they approach the final chapters of their lives.

"New Idria, California. Population 2," a title card announces in the film's opening moments, as the Woods' friend Tom Chargin, a motormouth photographer ("Is it OK if I talk?"), snaps away in the damp, foggy valley while volubly enthusing about New Idria's shabbily picturesque charms. The presence of Guez and Kulak's own camera is meanwhile acknowledged from the off. The Russian-born duo (Guez immigrated to Chicago at age 9) avoid hackneyed fly-on-the-wall conventions but also refrain from audible comment. "The Russkies," as they're dubbed at one point, clearly enjoy the trust and respect of their subjects, following them over several months from 2016 into 2017.

The Woods may bump bickeringly along in their exceedingly remote setting (they could be "neighbors" of Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough from Mandy), but while self-contained they're not hermits per se: Kemp ekes out a living selling quasi-precious rocks from local former mining operations; the duo, both lifelong Libertarian-leaning radicals, keep abreast of the news media. One of the most effective and amusing segments observes their wide-eyed but then resigned reactions to Donald Trump's shock election win. Kemp sets off a roman candle firework as an offering to the liberal gods (a.k.a. "the great spaghetti monster"). When these prove ineffective, Kate, perpetually plagued by considerations of mortality, ruefully muses, "Oh, well, we're gonna live in a new world..."

She occasionally drives to the nearest bar for a beer or three. One such visit, around the 50-minute mark, prefaces an out-of-the-blue tragedy — heralded by disorienting, near-abstract sequences of nocturnal dread — which colors the film's remaining 20-odd minutes in pallid hues of benumbed grief. What starts off as a low-key celebration of endearing quirkiness (even nuttiness) thus takes a left-field turn into unexpectedly moving and resonant territory. 

Working with minimal means, Guez and Kulak have crafted a simple but powerful little movie that touches on serious and complex intersections of the personal, political, psychological and social. In tandem with Kulak's (mainly) widescreen, (mainly) hand-held cinematography, sound design by the experienced pro Andrey Dergachev — best known for his fiction-feature collaborations with Russian master Andrey Zvyagintsev — boosts to the immersive qualities of this atmospherically detailed miniature.

Production company: Misha MacLaird
Cast: Tom Chargin, Kemp Woods, Kate Woods
Director-screenwriters: Ben Guez, Sasha Kulak
Producer: Misha MacLaird
Executive producers: Pedro Gonzalez‐Rubio
Cinematographer-editor: Sasha Kulak
Sound: Andrey Dergachev
Venue: Visions du Reel (Burning Lights Competition)
Sales: Misha MacLaird

In English, Spanish
74 minutes