There’s an old expression we don’t hear much of nowadays, either in its words or even, sadly, in its spirit: "Count the cost."
“Now I saw, though too late, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost, and before we judge rightly of our own strength to go through with it.”
- Robinson Crusoe
Here we meet Dwight, a homeless man eking out a meager existence amid the dunes of the Delaware coast, with an aged blue-tarped car his only shelter. Dwight forages in dumpsters for food, and employs tactics for the activities of daily living known only to those experienced in life on the street.
So unkempt is he that it’s hard to tell how old he actually is (and of course the harsh realities of homelessness will age a body well beyond its years), but the hard stare behind the abundant beard and locks bespeak a wary and disinterested soul. Dwight clearly eschews human contact, indeed seems somehow hardened against it, and one aches at the isolation of his figurative and literal darkness as he curls up in the back seat of the vehicle with ragged paperback and flashlight.
It’s only in the film’s extraordinary third scene that we realize how emotionally young, and how fragile, Dwight actually is. And that how what we’re seeing isn’t what we’re seeing at all. In a mere few sentences spoken [brilliantly] by another person, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier reveals to us the entirety of Dwight: his life experience, his relationship with the community, and the circumstances that brought him low. And once this person is finished talking, Dwight begins to move, and we realize that there’s a whole world behind those wary, damaged eyes.
Dwight has been waiting.
Thus begins an odyssey in which a broken man sets about making things right with the world again, but whose brokenness and fundamental goodness has prevented full comprehension of the logical conclusions of his plan… and now forces him to contend with the violent element that broke him in the first place.
Actor Macon Blair turns a magnificent performance as Dwight, who very nearly wordlessly for the first half of the film incarnates Dwight’s hopes, anguish, and incredible resolve. (It’s the kind of portrayal Kristin Wiig was after recently, I’m sure).
Together with Saulnier (also the cinematographer), Blair shows us the three lives of this unfortunate individual: the one he would have had but for these circumstances, the one he’s having as a result of these circumstances, and perhaps the most heartbreaking of all - the one he could have had had he reached across that table in the third scene, instead of walked out the door.
But it all comes down to decisions, doesn’t it? The decisions of others that put us where we are today, and our decisions about how we’re going to respond to that.
Blair and Saulnier also offer us the complexity and even mystery of Dwight’s true mettle: what is actual volition and what is reaction borne of necessity? What is his own pure drive, and what is driven by trauma? What is circumstance, and what is choice? We don’t really know until our time with him is done, at which point the full picture reveals itself.
All this, amid an intensity the true level of which won’t be fully recognized until you realize how long it takes to unwind when it’s over.
Bravo, gentlemen. Bravo.
Story: A beach-dwelling drifter moves into action in order to carry out an act of vengeance, setting into motion events far beyond his anticipation.
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolackm, David W. Thompson, Stacy Rock, Eve Plumb, Sidné Anderson
Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Running time: 90 minutes
Houston release date: May 2, 2014 at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park, May 9, 2014 at the Sundance Cinema, and may also be available via streaming/on demand depending on your available channels. Check IMDb or your local listings.
Screened April 14th 2014 at the Sundance Cinema theater in Houston TX