It’s true that “The Loneliest Planet,” directed by Julia Loktev (“Day Night Day Night”), is the kind of film that works best if you know little to absolutely nothing about it going in. But then again, couldn’t that be said for just about every film? So before we write this review, let’s get the basics out there: a young couple (played wonderfully by Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg), engaged to be married, is backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. They hire a guide to lead them on a hike filled with stunning vistas, and…something happens that changes things, irrevocably.
Sure, it’s a simple enough plot, but where this assured sophomore fiction effort from Loktev becomes quite interesting is in its complex character moments and subtle nuances. This is the kind of film that many will decry for being boring; they will almost undoubtedly complain that very little actually happens. Admittedly, with its 113-minute runtime, it’s tempting to say some fat could be trimmed, but then so much vital minutia would be lost, and the film would lose much of its impact.
“The Loneliest Planet” (a terrific title by the way, and we won’t say why) is a striking example of a small, low-budget production that feels both intimate and expansive. Loktev and her DP Inti Briones make use of a gifted trio of actors and stunning natural landscapes, respectively. The juxtaposition between tight close-ups and wide shots – where the leads are merely dots in the frame, nature seemingly swallowing them up – is a strong metaphorical visual for everything that transpires. Whatever the budget was, it’s all up on the screen, and then some. Music by Richard Skelton, which is abruptly cut off in between scenes (a wonderfully effective stylistic touch), adds to a tone of foreboding.
Not to imply that the film is any kind of thrill-a-minute nail biter, but it had this writer on edge for most of the runtime. It’s the little things – crossing a creek on a suspended cable, cutting rope, walking along rocky terrain, an initial distrust and awkwardness while getting to know their guide – that add to a sense that something awful is going to happen to this very likable and happy couple. Loktev seems to relish playing against audience expectations (also proven in the damn good suicide bomber tale ”Day Night Day Night”), but what’s refreshing is that she doesn’t appear to be doing it in a self conscious way. It just seems like where most filmmakers zig, she zags.
Perhaps the glut of Americans-abroad-and-in-terror horror movies in the last decade is to blame for this, but ‘Planet’ for a while appears to be heading down this often-xenophobic path, which it avoids at every turn. We thought we had this movie pegged early on. It seems so obvious where it’s going, until that aforementioned something happens, and Loktev’s true interests come to light. That moment (forgive us for being so coy, but it would ruin the humor and genuine surprise) is no more than three seconds long, but its impact is massive.
Bernal continues to put in one good performance after another, and his turn here is no exception. His character goes through quite an emotional upheaval, and it’s almost entirely seen on his face. But the other two actors are the real discovery. Furstenberg, with her gorgeous red hair and wiry frame, has screen presence that can’t be taught. We’ve never quite seen an actress like her, and can’t wait to see her in more films. As the guide, Bidzina Gudjabidze reveals depths and a goofy charm as his character's layers are peeled back.
We suppose it’s not all that surprising “The Loneliest Planet” has yet to find distribution in America, with its wholly singular storyline, slow burn pacing and subtle shifts. We do hope that changes though. It’s the kind of film that could lead to a great discussion after the credits roll, and proves that Julia Loktev is a gifted filmmaker worth following. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the Portland Film Festival. "The Loneliest Planet" opens up in New York and L.A. this weekend starting Friday, October 26th.