“Give me a verb”
Films like Julia Loktev‘s The Loneliest Planet are what make me fully aware of the fact I will always be a cinema lover who writes about movies and not a legitimate critic. Like the work of Kelly Reichardt, I just can’t access the importance so many of my peers easily uncover. I get what’s happening—the psychological verisimilitude on display with an engaged couple trekking through Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains—and yet I’m numb to it all. Traumatic experiences hit everyone and it’s not always pretty when each victim must discover his worth confronting. But as this trip from hell twists further into silence with more danger looming against feigned indifference and fear, what’s supposed to appear authentic and captivating ends up nothing more than a languidly contrived misadventure.
I actually didn’t mind the pacing at the start or the rather schizophrenically quick cutting between silent and unintelligible scenes. As Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) embark on their vacation we see happy-go-lucky, puppy love-filtered demeanors without an end in sight. They cope with the climate, meet new people who don’t speak English, and find a gentleman named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) willing to be their guide for a decently negotiated price. We’re given long shot views of landscapes, in close abstract crops of smiles and flesh, and polite faces biding time until the foreign words spoken at them cease. It’s a fish out of water beginning placing us in the unknown alongside the actors so that the journey can be as surprising as possible for all involved.
Cinematographer Inti Briones captures stunning photography of the Georgian expanse with lush greenery, polished white stone, and naturally gridded cliff faces. So much of the film is composed of these static frames with barely any motion; the slow walk from a distance of the three hikers cutting through the environment consuming them is our only reference point for the scale of what’s shown. Even the occasional close shot allowing the cast to fill the screen with their bodies remains still while dancing toes, rolling bodies, and carefully blocked fields of depth project the immense level of planning and calculated perfection at play. There is always a distinct exercise in proximity at work whether the trio is in frame together or not. So much is learned by how close they are willing to get.
This is so because while they get along swimmingly at the start, not everything remains copasetic after crossing paths with an older man and two young boys. For the first half of the film Nica and Alex are enjoying themselves by conjugating verbs, taking silly photos, and good-naturedly ribbing on their guide. Dato himself seems to be having fun with broken English jokes about castration and semi-successful magic tricks to help entertain his guests. But what many Europeans and Americans find themselves facing when abroad in somewhat hostile territory is a very real sense of the unknown when it comes to a people they are unable to converse with. This loving couple may be on vacation, but the fact the man walking through their path carries a gun shows how far from safe they are.
Loktev methodically lulls us into this sense of security through her adaptation of a Tom Bissell short story and it would have been an amazing turn of events if the harrowing scene they face began a change in tone and pace. What happens between the stranger and Alex is unexpected because of the confrontation’s rapid escalation, Alex’s unforgettable handling of his fear in response, and the inability of all to explain why it occurs. A palpable air of intrigue therefore lingers for the duration of the trip, their silence speaking louder than the words that may have cleared everything up easier than they obviously believed it would. It’s this quiet embarrassment that allows more tragic missteps to occur and the heavily weighted tension to continuously turn tighter as each second passed.
This may be exactly what Loktev desired, to throw a wrench in the idyllic countryside and make us clamor for answers she would never share. And that’s okay—I actually love it if this was her goal—but I cannot condone her approach. The second half of The Loneliest Planet is awkwardly uncomfortable to say the least—an empathetic atmosphere forcing us to feel each isolated second is a feat of excellence on her part. However, I often found myself leaving that carefully manufactured sphere of emotional turmoil for the unfortunate feeling of pure tedium it also instilled. Every time I felt I finally was engrossed in the action and non-action, the welcome discomfort would morph into profound boredom and all magic turned to visible artifice.
It’s too bad because the pieces by themselves are phenomenal. Visually stunning in night and day, Loktev brings this world to life by also allowing her actors the room to give strong, nuanced performances overflowing with authentic emotional strife and internal struggle. Bernal’s reaction to a split-second decision causing him to question everything he thought he knew about himself is sad, embarrassing, and completely relatable; Gujabidze’s overbearing personality believably spills beyond entertainment to selfish desire; and Furstenberg shines brightest as the woman lost in between the strength she knows she possesses and the helplessness she feels despite it. The loneliest moments are those surrounded by others when we’re frozen to engage. Loktev’s story is a steady stream of such instances, it’s just unfortunate that coldness extended too far for me to truly open up to it.
 Hani Furstenberg stars as Nica and Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Alex in Sundance Selects’ The Loneliest Planet (2012)
 Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Alex and Hani Furstenberg stars as Nica in Sundance Selects’ The Loneliest Planet (2012)
 Gael Garcia Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze and Hani Furstenberg in Sundance Selects’ The Loneliest Planet (2012)