This monosyllabic and remarkably pretentious debut from American filmmaker Alistair Banks Griffin offers little beyond the superficial beauty of its photography with which to engage. A handsome frame alone does not constitute poetry in cinema, and whilst clearly an admirer of the work of Terence Malick in its reverence for the destructive beauty of nature and magic hour shooting, Two Gates Of Sleep fails to provide the necessary characterisation or even basic motivation for the events which unfold.
Much like William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930) with which it shares its basic premise, the title derives from Homer’s Odyssey. Faulkner’s novel used its stream of consciousness narrative to provide a metaphysical and existential subtext to the story of a family overcoming personal and geographical adversity to bury their mother according to her wishes. Depending on how you view Two Gates Of Sleep, there’s either no subtext or that’s all there is. Adopting a seemingly Bressonian approach to the direction of its actors, we’re able to infer little from their expressionless faces, and even less from the virtually non-existent dialogue. With this type of anti-acting, we’re left to deduce motivation and character from their actions alone, which if taken literally prove bizarre and if metaphorically merely obtuse or simplistically Freudian.
There are some fine sequences however, particularly the opening deer hunt, and the cinematography is often luminous, but by choosing to revel in its ambiguities to the extent to which it does, the ‘haunting’ tone for which it clearly aims (the sound design suggests a horror film) proves alienating very quickly. Whispered (mumbled) words are heard non-diegetically as the mother stumbles through the woods alone on the eve of her death, an interior monologue of supposedly poetic craziness that offers little psychological insight (we never find out what’s wrong with her) and the one dialogue driven scene with the (unseen) local doctor as to what should be done with her body, does little to engage our empathy, casting the brothers as backwoods hillbillies with little education beyond what they garner from their fuzzy television set (“I’ve seen what they do to bodies on TV, fill ‘em with liquid and stuff.”)
The Cain and Abel moment mid-way through their trek goes unexplained beyond its literary inferences as does their need to bury their mother in this particular place, what appears to be a big tree similar to many others they’ve passed. It’s the overriding problem with the film as a whole, which aspires towards a tone poem to its various literary and mythical progenitors but, despite its rhythm and sense of space and light, simply becomes mired in its own allusions and pretensions.
Two Gates Of Sleep – 2010 – USA – 79 mins – Dir : Alistair Banks Griffin
Screening as part of the World Cinema strand at the London Film Festival on Monday 18th, Tuesday 19th & Wednesday 20th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff