'They Chased Me Through Arizona': Locarno Review
Krzysztof Kiersznowski stars in Matthias Huser's deadpan, Western-influenced Swiss-Polish road-movie
Big skies are a classic component of the western genre, and pan-flat Poland has them in spades. The central European country is thus a suitable backdrop for They Chased Me Through Arizona, director-co-writer Matthias Huser's desert-dry comedy in which post-Communist "progress" is ironically counterpointed with the bygone world of the pistol-packing cowboy.
The Locarno-premiering Swiss-Polish co-production — dialogue entirely in Polish — may wear its central conceit like an oversized Stetson, but there are slow-burning charms here for patient viewers happy to stay in the saddle till sundown. Box-office prospects in Poland will depend on the appeal of versatile, prolific, reliably compelling co-star Eryk Lubos and top-billed small-screen veteran Krzysztof Kiersznowski, while the catchy English-language-only title may pique curiosity at "home" and at festivals abroad.
A performer so deliciously inexpressive here that he makes Charles Bronson look like Jim Carrey, Kiersznowski exerts a hewn-granite appeal as sixtyish Leonard, long-term employee of a telecommunications company that looks like some descendant of a Communist-era state enterprise. The business is in the process of going bust, its doom presumably sealed by the spread of cellphones across newly prosperous Poland and the resulting obsolescence of public "boxes."
The bosses decree that all remaining outdoor units must be decommissioned and the mechanisms brought back to the depot. Via a comically elaborate wheel-of-fortune system Leonard is selected for the monotonous task. Unable to drive, he is chauffeured around by ex-con Ben (Lubos), the pair striking up a largely silent, quasi-father-son relationship as they chug from flyblown rural outpost to depopulated peri-urban locale in search of the forlorn cabins.
Indeed, one of the strands of humor in Huser's screenplay, co-written with Aurelius Eisenreich and Kinga Krzeminska, is the fact that phone booths would be located in such transparently uncommercial spots, location-scout Rafal Turzanski laying strong claim to MVP honors for tracking down a string of amusingly desolate backwaters.
But while They Chased Me Through Arizona yields a reasonable measure of low-key smiles, there's a strong streak of elegiac melancholy tumbleweeding across the screen here, a wistfulness given color and shape by Gabriel Sandru's cinematography. The Polish plain takes on prairie aspects, while by contrast the boldly-lit interiors of motels and retro-ambient private dwellings evoke an Edward Hopper universe of individuals coping with their loneliness together.
This is an exercise in mood and character — specifically, an investigation of stoic masculinity — with narrative concerns and social realism some way down the list of priorities, and strong debts to Finland's master of archly seductive gloom, Aki Kaurismaki, palpable throughout. Not a bad example for a first-timer to follow, needless to say, but Huser's inexperience keeps peeping through in small but crucial details — such as the western novel that both of his protagonists peruse, and from which the title is supposedly taken.
Little about this fictional text rings true, from the garbled moniker Fist Law of Liberty (an oblique homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends, AKA Faustrecht der Freiheit) to needless confusions about whether the book is in English or Polish, to the narrated extracts, none of which sound very convincing. Perhaps Huser should have torn himself away from Kaurismaki and instead more closely studied Carol Reed's The Third Man, a classic that so effortlessly and wittily interpolates another made-up cowboy saga: The Lone Rider of Santa Fe.
Production companies: Ventura Films, Lava Films
Cast: Krzysztof Kiersznowski, Eryk Lubos, Halina Skoczynska, Lorenz Claussen, Barbara Dembinska, Anna Lenartowicz
Director: Matthias Huser
Screenwriters: Matthias Huser, Aurelius Eisenreich (co-writer Kinga Krzeminska)
Producers: Elsa Guidinetti, Andres Pfaeffli
Cinematographer: Gabriel Sandru
Production designers: Nicole Hoesli, Jerdzej Kowalski
Costume designer: Malgorzata Karpiuk
Editor: Milenia Fiedler
Composer: Nicolas Von Ritter-Zahony
Sales: Frenetic Films, Zurich
No Rating, 87 minutes