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The New Silences: Road to Nowhere, Small Town Murder Songs, and Martha Marcy May Marelene

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There was a time when “independent film” meant cinema which was in many ways oppositional to classic Hollywood style. Hollywood was flashy, indie meant gritty; where Hollywood dialogue is truncated, indie would revel and dwell on the nuances of conversation. Indie soundtracks would avoid the big scores and create an alternative soundscape more connected to the milieu of the narrative. This kind of indie film also became an economic necessity as one style had a monopoly on the theater screens that made direct competition impossible. Creative filmmaking decisions created a market for a different kind of film experience audiences didn’t even know they wanted.

Road to Nowhere (2010) is a film that gleefully jumps between the world of a film being made and the drama around the filmmaker, Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), who is making the film. When onscreen film producers decide to film a thriller in the town that the actual events happened, they also involve some of the real players in the real-life murder. As details of the actual murder bear more and more on the production, it becomes increasingly difficult for the viewer to discern which is “real” and which is “film”. Early in the film, there is usually evidence of the production at work; laptops, notes, and storyboards become DSLR camera rigs, tripods and even crew trailers. As the film reaches the conclusion, the machinery of filmmaking disappears from prominence.

Some of the central characters, notably Shannon Sossaman, who plays both Laurel Graham and Velma Duran, exist in both parallel stories, so illusion and confusion is a constant part of the experience. Director Monte Hellman intentionally conflates the two realities rather than giving the audience clear signs of what is what. Unfortunately, this starts to feel inorganic and a bit too self-involved to really engage the viewer. In order for a viewer to experience the kind of disorientation they might feel in a David Lynch or Hitchcock film, they must think they know what is going on to begin with. Confusion for its own sake does little. Hellman’s acid western The Shooting (1966) takes similar risks with less disorienting results.


What is most interesting about this film is that unlike work from directors like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, or Spike Jonze, there are very few visual tricks in use. I believe it’s as much a style choice as a budgetary one. By shooting the film within the film in much the same way as the film itself, the illusion is kept intact. Again, it is a great way to create disorientation, but unfortunately, in this film, it obscures experience as well as truth.

Equally interesting is that there is meta-awareness for the viewer; these kinds of austere films are thought to be somehow “honest”. With no recognizable illusions it is easier to assume what you are seeing is all there is. The lack of obvious special effects indicates that what we see is what we get. So it is with many of the visuals; functional but not breathtaking compositions, natural, but not expressive lighting, and an utilitarian editing style which moves the narrative, confuses the reality, but takes no poetic or formal risks: “Nothing to see here, don’t pay attention”. Film style as camouflage, perhaps.

The soundtrack has few adornments or flourishes. As if the visuals do not wish to be seen, the aural space is not meant to be heard. No driving soundtrack of any sort, sound effects kept to a minimum and naturalistic when used, foley used sparingly. When there is dialogue, there is often broad silence between statements. As it happens, there is a good amount of silence in the film in general. For example, the camera watches from a distance as a single engine airplane plummets toward a lake. There’s no shrieking descent, just the wind in the trees, some road ambience, and then a subdued splash when the plane hits water. If we didn’t see the plane, we might not have noticed anything had happened at all.

In audio production, there is technical matter called “presence” the sound of silence, the audio of a space where nothing is happening. This tone creates a sense of what the location is in a very subtle way. So it is with the silence in Road to Nowhere. I can imagine that it isn’t the music is missing, more like the music is muffled and suppressed to muteness. There is weight to the silence that suggests the gag of a cover-up rather than peace. Unfortunately, all of these interesting and compelling stylistic choices only accentuate the weaknesses in the narrative telling. Because of this, the film feels closer to a first feature than the work of someone who has been making movies since 1959. Perhaps Road to Nowhere is meant as a lament — a filmmaker’s journey is always on a road to a place that never exists.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) has much in common with Road to Nowhere, but there are many distinctions too. The film’s narrative follows Martha (Elizabeth Olson), a cultist on the run, as she takes shelter in the home of her older sister Katie (Maria Dizzia) and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha struggles to keep the present separate from the past, hallucination from reality, the film shifts as she remembers past traumas within the domestic moments at Katie’s house. In an illusion similar, though more artful than Road to Nowhere, the film actually intercuts the present with the past in a way that is seamless and effective.

Like Road to Nowhere, there is also little variation in style between the current scenes in the home and the flashbacks with the cult. The color palette and design of the two spaces is very similar to each other, so a viewer can understand how Martha could slide easily into her Marcy May memories and lifestyle. Both locations are treated with naturalism, mostly relying on the suggestion of natural or motivated light, and color temperature as they appear to the naked eye. While there are occasional dips into low-key lighting during the cult scenes, Patrick (John Hawkes), the Manson/Koresh-esque cult leader, is given nearly equal visual treatment to sister Katie. While Patrick’s actions are certainly troubling to the viewer, Katie is the one subject to a harsher visual treatment and receives none of the flattering romantic gauze that Patrick receives. We are meant to see through Martha’s distrust and shaky identity.

The tension in Katie’s home and the oppression of the cult farm are equally present in the pauses and silences between the dialogue in this film. As if everyone is breathless, low on oxygen, and must gather air before they can say something. The pace is deliberate, we are given time to hear and look at the scene before it ends. Rather than a breakneck narrative pace of economy, the film moves in the hypnotized daze of the cultist lifestyle. While the soundtrack is full of natural sounds and ambience, music is mostly absent. This creates the illusion of naturalism and the illusion of moments captured as they happened. The performances provide the emotional arc without non-diegetic interference.

All of the actors deliver finely tuned scenes that always inform but never dominate. Elizabeth Olson does deliver a remarkable and potent character which shows the breadth of Martha. There’s been a spate of narrative about women with shaking grasps of reality, but there is honesty and sympathy in Olson’s performance which is hard to see elsewhere. Hugh Dancy should be pointed out as well. He doesn’t have a lot to work with, and in lesser hands, Ted would resonate as a one-dimensional tool. Ted is a keystone character, and if his character alienated the audience too much, most of the second act would fall flat. Brady Corbet plays a key role too, as a charming recruiter for the cult, he demonstrates both the charisma and cruelty that Patrick’s family lives on.

There is also a suggestion that this is a world without a creator, that the fates of the characters are entirely their own. We see the people; hear their words, their memories, and little else. Music would suggest a meaning in the events that is elusive to everyone except Patrick. Likewise, (quite unlike the similar visual pace of Tree of Life), the framing of the film doesn’t reach for a self-conscious poetry, but lets what poetry exists fall between edits and spaces of dialogue.  The camera refrains for commentary as well, and we see moments as we might see them and not as we should see them. Like a mockumentary, this style simulates a lack of conscious style. The film was shot in the epic 2:35:1 format, the down-to-earth imagery   suggests another layer kind of misdirection.

For all of the elaborate illusions in Road to Nowhere, the audience knows much more during that film than in Martha Marcy May Marlene. When Martha discovers cult members at her sister’s garden party, we don’t really know if they were there or not, if the threat is real or imagined. Likewise, when Martha wakes up screaming, half-remembering a sexual molestation at the cult, it is not known if the dream was actually triggered by Ted’s predatory advances as she slept. Even the ending, as the murderous cult hurtles down the highway behind Martha, Katie and Ted, does not reveal if the threat is real and final, or if it is only the death rattle of Martha’s sense of reality.

Small Town Murder Songs (2010) presents Sherriff Walter (Peter Stormare), a man on the upswing after reaching a nadir of violent jealousy. Though religion helps him keep his demons under control, many around him haven’t forgotten, especially his ex Rita (Jill Hennessy). When a corpse is discovered outside of town, Walter finds himself at the center of the murder investigation and under the thumb of an OPP agent. As he becomes convinced that the murderer is Rita’s boyfriend Steve (Stephen Eric-Myintyre), his motives appear as dubious as his failing self-control.

Like the other films, Small Town Murder Songs, is dominated by quietness but is also punctuated by bursts of original blues-rock by Bruce Peninsula. The silence in this film is powerful, charged with tension, and filled with the rage that Walter keeps locked behind his own tightened lips. There is suspense as we wait for the silence to break and the agitated storm to swell to a tempest. Saying this is the calm before the storm would be missing the point, as there is no calm anywhere in the world of the film. Small town politeness and gossip feeds the pressure, and it’s a wonder that a passing stranger hasn’t been murdered sooner.

The spaciousness of this film is reminiscent of other work, but director Ed Gass-Donnely carves out his own milieu apart from the tropes of genre. Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, the entire film is colored by the darkening view of Walter and this point-of-view is intrinsic to every frame. This is not pastoral rural life; this life is filled with overcast skies, road kill and constant creep of rust and ruin. There is plenty of aural silence, but just as notable is the kinds of visual silence in most of the compositions. The images are filled with negative space, subjects dwarfed by landscapes of nature or setting. Filmed in 2:35:1, cinematographer Brendan Steacy has plenty of horizontal space to fill, or to leave open, as happens much more often. Even the close-ups read as if they were a panorama, as if we are to understand the expressions for the space they occupy, but feel the tension for the vastness that surrounds them. This is a small world made large by a murder, and more so by the aftermath.

There’s another kind of tension and surprise. Peter Stormare usually plays hoods, criminals or other low-lifes and Jill Hennessy is often defined by a kind of elegance and class. In this film, they are both acting against type, with Stormare taking on the role of an uptight penitent and Hennessy trashing it up as a disappointed, but proud, trailer park queen. Somehow, this makes it easier to feel sympathy for them, as if they themselves have fallen into lesser, less heroic, lives. The creation of this friction and the believability of their lot make both of their performances remarkable. In a film with such determined compositions, with a precise soundtrack, it might be easy for a filmmaker to lose track of the human performance at the heart of the story. One could point to Days of Heaven, another film from Tree of Life director Terence Malick, as a possible example of this. Yet Ed Gass-Donnely keeps the elements in balance, showing us the emotions that propel or undercut the imagery the illuminates them. Somehow, Gass-Donnely, Brenden Steacy, and the cast invest the frames with the sublime expression that can be found in the photography of Robert Frank.

This photographic style has much in common with Martha Marcy May Marlene, but while that film uses simple edits to create confusion between past and present, Small Town Murder Songs cuts very sparingly, and when it does, it shifts from one studied composition to the next. This is a kind of economy; only cutting when needed to the necessary image, an image that does the work that other filmmakers would use multiple shots to accomplish. However, this economy is also a luxury, as Ed Gass-Donnely is taking a chance that these studied images will do the work he needs them to do. They worked for me, they worked for the majority of critics, but not everyone who has seen the movie feels this way. Not all audiences want their gothic crime movies to have the steady pace of an Ozu or Kubrick at his most leisurely.

The tricky thing about this kind of quiet filmmaking is that it could be mistaken for conservative filmmaking. Small Town Murder Songs shows this is not true. Gass-Donnely and crew take many risks; the silence and thunder of the soundtrack, the billboard-sized intertitles that announce each “chapter”(Repent And Profess Your Faith, Live In The World But Not Of It, and God Meets Us Where We’re At), and the nuance which is brought to a story which could be just as easily hacked into any number of hour-long crime dramas. There is nothing easy or comfortable about this kind of filmmaking and it is this attitude that makes it as independent as the earlier films which inspires it. The real magic of these films is that they don’t need the history of indie film to exist; I get the feeling that they would have been made regardless of whatever may have come before. These are stories told they way they had to be told.

There’s a theory of creative thinking that is called “disruptive thinking”. The idea being that by working from the concepts that are antithetical to the assumptions of any given situation you can create a radically creative solution. This contemporary “silent film” is a perfect example; by embracing the very things which standard Hollywood rejects de riguer (overproduced sound, limited thematic dimensions, and classic narrative technique) these films, and others, demonstrate that the indie spirit isn’t limited to a set of generic tropes. Independent film isn’t a movement like noir, neo-realist or dogme; independent film is a dynamic, a variable to change the total equation. Independent film is what happens at the edge of vision, at the border of hearing, and in the empty spaces between words which tell us what is said, what is unsaid, and what cannot be formed into words.

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About T.A. Wardrope