Despite naturalistic performances by leads Ben Foster and Lubna Azabal ("Incendies," "Coriolanus") and impressive cinematography by Lol Crawley ("Ballast," "Four Lions"), Braden King's "Here" is a maundering relationship movie with few stakes and even less to say.
However, it begins convincingly enough. The film opens with an experimental sequence (the first of a handful spread throughout) pontificating on the lives of dreamers and thinkers, how their trains of thought sometimes intersect, and where they differ. Peter Coyote narrates these passages in a professorial way, and while all are potentially interesting, sooner than later they may flip the Zone-Out Switch that many university instructors have the uncanny ability to do. Still, opening with such a pondering nature suggests that "Here" might have more under the hood than a simplistic love story. We're along for the ride.
Our first introduction to Foster's Will, a San Diego-based cartographer on a job in Armenia, is through a skillfully-composed landscape shot. It's immediately grasped that his work is both meticulous and completely solitary; those notions are only driven further by subsequent scenes in his gloomy hotel. His lack of fluency in the language eventually finds him crossing paths with Gadarine (Azabal), who catches him at a restaurant and aids him in ordering breakfast. A rather successful photographer outside of her home country, Gadarine has returned to an unwelcoming family and, much like Will, finds herself leading an isolated life. A second chance encounter at a swank party solidifies their relationship, and she immediately convinces him to take her along to snap some shots of the Armenian environment.
On this road trip of sorts, Will and Gadarine slowly form an unlikely rapport with one another. In between the map-maker's tedious work, they find a remote lake perfect for skinny-dipping, inevitably leading to fornication, an act that cements their comfortable relationship. Their voyages take them to various untouched terrains and tiny villages, with Gadarine even going so far to introduce Will to an old childhood friend. But alas, the honeymoon period can't last forever, and an altercation with border officials create a tension that leads to a fierce quarrel.
Only it’s too little too late, because by the time things heat up, we’ve already checked out. As much as the aforementioned experimental philosophy-spouting sequences promise something deep, the end result feels rather mute. King essentially takes his time to say very little with his narrative, and along the journey there are very few moments worth sticking around for. Foster and Azabel are absolutely talented, but they don’t have any chemistry together -- it doesn’t feel organic, sweet, or just plain interesting enough to be the central subject of a narrative. Sure, their relationship obviously isn’t a traditional one, and maybe they were both simply at the right time and right place for each other -- whatever the argument is for them hooking up and staying together, it’s not a strong enough reason for us to care. This lack of investment gives the entire film very little weight, almost leading one to suspect that the plot may make a severe left turn at some point simply because its subject is so lacking.
For these kind of minimalistic movies, a connection to whatever location is absolutely essential (they’re different films, but “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Still Life” are contemporaries that do it wonderfully), but the film falters with this as well. The director certainly showcases the land, and while it’s striking, there seems to be a thin, flimsy bond between the characters and their environment. There are more than enough wide shots in which the land swallow their small bodies, driving home the feeling of isolation, but the bond with nature should be more powerful than that. Too often are beautifully-shot landscapes delegated to generic American Indie montages, with random shots slapped together along with some banjo-picking to prove to the audience that time has passed. Similarly, as the characters pass through villages and visit markets, King amounts their experiences to a blip on the radar and quickly cuts away from the culture. In other words, it’s a mostly lifeless depiction of the country; it’s a shame that there wasn’t a better way to take advantage of such a fruitful location.
To be fair, “Here” isn’t a failure, but it misses the mark on some of its biggest elements and is disappointingly mediocre by the time the credits roll. As a relationship movie it lacks charm and feels forced, while as a road-movie it seems to want very little to do with the environment, other than to show its characters alone in the big world. This, combined with a punishingly-slow pace and the film's lack of substance, is enervating at the end of the day. King knows how to pick his players and where to put his camera, but in the future he’ll have to incorporate more soul. [D+]