How To Make Your Audience Walk Out In Six Easy Steps
HERE is a very atmospheric, landscape obsessed, road movie ... and it chronicles a brief but intensely affecting relationship between an American mapmaker, a satellite mapping engineer, and an Armenian expatriate and art photographer who's back on her first trip home in many years.... It was very important to us that not only that the film told an engaging story but that it also had a certain amount of experiential content to it, that you really felt like you'd been on a journey once you watched the film.
To be fair, the movie definitely has an American mapmaker, Will (Ben Foster), and an Armenian photographer, Gadarine (Lubna Azabal). It is a "road movie" in that they travel around Armenia together. And it's definitely landscape obsessed. Unfortunately, the atmospherics are blunt, at best, Will and Gadarine's relationship (at least an hour in) is anything but affecting and the "story," as it were, is the antithesis of engaging.
Let me back up. The film opens with an intentional "accidental shot" before the movie begins, with background crew talking, the clapperboard and a directorial "action." This is followed by a several-minutes long voiceover monologue by Foster's Will, telling a parable about mapmakers meeting and exchanging maps. The accompanying video is this psychedelic blend of blurred neon lights and quickflashes of whatnots that distracted me from actually hearing about half of the parable. Roughly half-a-dozen people left the theater at the end of this intro.
We then get these long drawn out visuals establishing Will in the open fields of Armenia, doing his mapmaking business. And I'm talking really long, and really drawn-out. It's one thing to have deliberately slow pacing but, here, that pacing is just brutal. There were at least three such long scenes in the first hour, with the camera slowly pulling in or out, or circling around, and these are clearly the embodiment of King's landscape obsession. The problem is, he chose relatively bland landscapes. You seen a grassy field with mountains in the background? You've seen Armenia according to these shots. Which is a shame because, during the scenes where Will and Gadarine are trucking across the land, there are some interesting, beautiful and different scenery shots. But we don't get obsessed shots on those, we just see them from inside the truck. No, we get obsessed shots of run-of-the-mill hills and mountains.
As for the story, Will and Gadarine meet in a quiet little breakfast shop, and it is legitimately a good scene. They part ways after he gives her a ride home, but they bump into each other again at an official function that evening. Gadarine decides to travel with Will as he's going someplace she's always wanted to photograph (near the demilitarized zone, I think), and off they go.
Actually, before this, there was a second monologue played over more art project visuals. Over a dozen people left shortly after this.
So Will and Gadarine actually talk very little during the travels, but eventually she swims topless and they schtup in the back of his pickup truck, so you know, relationship. And it's not in the least bit affecting because we really don't know anything about them. All that we really learn in that first hour about Gadarine is that she has a prick of a brother who expects her to stay at home and fulfill her sister role (whatever that is in Armenian culture), she has parents she hasn't seen in a long time and with whom she appears to have a somewhat stilted relationship, and she likes taking pictures. And we know even less about Will -- he makes maps. Seriously, that, and that he's from San Francisco, are all that we learn about him (or at least all that stuck with me). We simply are not given anything to latch on to in order to care about them or their budding relationship (not to mention that we don't really see the budding relationship either, beyond the fact that they simply spend a lot of time together in a truck).
Foster and Azabal are perfectly fine in their roles, and the problem is that they're given very little to work with, especially Foster. I was excited to see him in something a bit different. This fits that bill. I just meant different good.
At about the hour-mark, there was a legitimately mildly interesting scene, involving an e-mail Will sends to his employers. Something to do with wonky satellite and map data. And the next scene had the most interesting shot of Armenia yet. But the film had lost me at this point. I had no reason to believe that there would be an interesting payoff to the e-mail -- and more importantly, I no longer cared -- and I was frustrated that this landscape got passing camera work, while I had to spend minutes looking at fields.
Going back to that video clip of King, he also says that "the sort of meditative aspects of the film, the observational aspects of the film, hopefully serve to put the audience along on that trip." If the intentioned trip was an early exit from the theater, mission accomplished (to be fair, while 30-40 people left by the time I left, there were still probably 80-odd people in the theater, so King may have achieved his hopes with some of them).
HERE screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition.