The Plains

Directed by: David Easteal
Distributed by: MUBI

Written by Michael Clawson

In David Eastel’s “The Plains,” the mundane act of commuting home from work provides the formal scaffolding for a subtle but profound character study. For much of the film’s enthralling three hours, the camera sits motionless in the middle backseat of a sedan, gazing forward as Andrew (Andrew Rakowski), a middle-aged legal worker, drives home shortly after 5PM from his job in the suburbs of Melbourne. Some days, Andrew gives his younger colleague, David (Eastel), a ride; other days, Andrew is alone, listening to talk radio or the hum of traffic. What we glean about Andrew we receive through quotidian conversations, whether between Andrew and David, Andrew and his wife, who he calls almost every day as he pulls out of his office parking lot, or Andrew and his elderly mother, who is suffering from dementia in an assisted living facility. As days pass and the commutes accumulate, the tedium of the road becomes a filter through which life’s contours are movingly visible and felt.

The end result is extraordinary, and closer to “Jeanne Dielmann” than Steven Knight’s “Locke.” Like Chantal Akerman, Eastel appreciates the power of duration, using long takes to immerse his audience in the liminal space defined by a work commute. His approach is rigorous, but also mysterious: we never see Andrew actually arrive at his destination, since Eastel, who also edited the film, always cuts to the next day before Andrew gets home. Eastel avoids anything that might be described as visual or sonic stylization (there is no non-diagetic music), but he does punctuate the film’s steady rhythm with several surprises. On a few occasions, the film shifts to the point of view of a camera on Andrew’s drone, which he flies around Australia’s rural expanses as a pastime. Something perhaps even more striking than the film’s structuralist design is Eastel’s direction of his principal actor. As Andrew, Rakowski gives an astonishingly true-to-life performance. His manner of speaking is so exceptionally natural, so non-actorly, that “The Plains” could easily be mistaken for pure documentary. The movie is, in fact, a hybrid of fiction and documentary: prior to shooting, Rakowski and Eastel worked together at a community legal center, and Eastel’s script is loosely based on their real-life interactions. Regardless of where exactly the line between truth and fabrication may exist, “The Plains” is utterly fascinating in both form and content.

“The Plains” Trailer

Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.

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